In this section
Transportation of livestock
The transportation of any animal can cause distress and suffering. This is why RSPCA standards specify that all farm animals should be slaughtered as close as possible to their point of origin and that the journey times for animals must not exceed eight hours. In fact, for some species, RSPCA welfare standards maximum journey times can be much lower.
Stunning and slaughter
While the majority of us continue to consume meat, eggs, fish and dairy, animal slaughter is an unpleasant but inescapable reality of food production. That’s why for us at RSPCA Assured, it is fundamental that this process is always performed in the most humane way possible.
There are two aspects to the slaughter process: stunning and killing. Any personnel involved in the slaughter process need to be thoroughly trained and competent.
Stunning renders an animal unconscious, meaning they are unable to experience pain or distress. UK regulations require animals to be stunned before slaughter, although an exemption does exist where animals can be killed without first being stunned if this is being carried out in accordance with religious rites. All animals on RSPCA Assured farms must be stunned prior to slaughter using one of the methods listed below.
Large animal stunning
Penetrating captive bolt
Species: cattle, sheep and pigs.
A penetrative captive bolt fires a retractable metal bolt into the animal’s skull, causing the animal to lose consciousness immediately. This must always be followed by bleeding as quickly as possible.
Species: sheep, calves and pigs.
Electrical stunning uses a large pair of tongs on either side of an animal’s head to pass a current through the brain, causing immediate loss of consciousness. This can be followed by a secondary current that passes through the heart which kills the animal through cardiac arrest. As the animal is already unconscious at this point, they do not experience pain from the second current.
A mixture of gases is used to stun pigs, making them insensible to pain. The pigs must then remain in the gas mixture until they are killed. The most common gas used is carbon dioxide (CO2), which by law must be used at a minimum concentration of 80%. In RSPCA Assured slaughterhouses, the concentration must be at least 90%. This is to ensure a faster death and to make sure the animals suffer less.
A key part of the slaughter process is bleeding- where the animal/carcass is drained of blood. This is done either to kill an unconscious animal (e.g. where an animal has been stunned using a simple method such as electronarcosis) or as part of the dressing process if the animal is already dead (e.g. pigs killed through exposure to gas).
Before an animal is bled it is hoisted in the air by shackles attached to the hind limbs. A trained slaughter person will then use a sharp knife to sever the major blood vessels, resulting in rapid blood loss and death. The law also prohibits any further dressing procedures until the bleeding has ended, or within a certain time frame, e.g. 30 seconds for cattle. Performed properly, a stunned animal will not regain consciousness before or during the bleeding process and will therefore remain insensible to pain.
Gas killing of poultry
The majority of poultry slaughtered in the UK are killed through exposure to gas. This method has a major welfare advantage as the birds remain in their transport crates and do not have to be individually handled. There are different methods of gas slaughter systems in use in the UK, but all systems must ensure that the birds remain in the gas mixture long enough to be killed, not just stunned.
Electrical waterbath stunning
When a waterbath is used to kill poultry, birds must be individually handled and placed into restrainers where they are hung upside down by their legs on metal shackles that move along a conveyor system. Birds are then automatically moved along the production line to the waterbath, where they must be submerged up to their wings for a minimum of 4 seconds. As soon as the bird’s head makes contact with the water, an electrical current will either stun or kill the bird, depending on the system. If the system is set to stun birds, they must be killed without delay (The RSPCA welfare standards require birds to be killed within 10 seconds of exit from the waterbath). The RSPCA is committed to phasing out inverted shackling systems, and these are currently only allowed under strict conditions of use.
Non-stun slaughter in the UK
UK legislation requires animals to be stunned prior to slaughter, however, an exemption exists where animals can be killed without stunning in accordance with religious rites. Therefore, whilst the majority of animals are pre-stunned, a proportion is not, meaning they are conscious and able to experience pain during the slaughter process. For example, 25% of sheep in the UK are slaughtered without prior stunning. All RSPCA Assured animals are stunned prior to slaughter and there are currently no RSPCA Assured products labelled as halal or kosher.
Which religions require non-stun slaughter?
The exemption to slaughter animals without prior stunning extends only to the Islamic and Jewish faiths.
What is halal?
In Islam, food must be certified as halal, which means “permissible”. For meat to be halal, there are certain conditions that must be met, such as the slaughter person being a Muslim, and the animal must be alive and healthy at the point of slaughter. A dedication, either tasmiya or shahada, is also recited at the point of slaughter. If meat is not slaughtered within these conditions, it is haram (“forbidden”). Today, many Muslims accept stunning and, according to an FSA survey in 2018, 58% of animals slaughtered through the halal method were stunned prior to slaughter.
Animals slaughtered for halal meat can be pre-stunned through an electrical method that produces narcosis- temporary unconsciousness which, if the animal is left to recover, is fully reversible. For example, head-only electrical stunning is commonly used to stun sheep for both halal and non-religious slaughter.
What is kosher?
In Judaism, kosher (translated as “clean” or “pure”) relates to foods that are acceptable for consumption. For meat products to be kosher, the animal must be slaughtered through the shechita method, which has a number of requirements such as the animal must be uninjured and healthy, the person slaughtering the animal must be a trained Schochet (Jewish slaughter person), and an extremely sharp knife (chalaf) must be used to kill the animal. Stunning prior to slaughter is not permitted in shechita slaughter, and meat from an animal slaughtered in this way would be neveila (forbidden).
How many animals are not pre-stunned in the UK?
The FSA estimated that in 2018 25% of sheep, 1% of cattle and 10% of meat chickens were slaughtered without prior stunning. As an organisation that values compassion and understanding, we respect everyone’s right to their own beliefs. However, we will never compromise on our mission to protect the welfare of animals and advocate that all animals must be slaughtered through a humane method with prior stunning.