Comment: The split second that gives meat eaters pause for thought

Halal produce in a supermarket ' ritual slaughter is a vexed issue. Picture: Getty
Halal produce in a supermarket ' ritual slaughter is a vexed issue. Picture: Getty
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Death and taxes are not the only certainties in life. If you’re eating meat some animal has been killed to provide it. The question exercising some minds at present, excluding those who believe we shouldn’t eat meat at all, is how the necessary killing is done.

By the “humane” killer for sheep, cattle and horses in slaughterhouses? Electrocution for poultry and pigs? Shot in flight? Or using the sharpest of knives without stunning in ritual slaughter to comply with Muslim and Jewish requirements?

The latest attack on ritual slaughter methods came from John Blackwell, president-elect of the British Veterinary Association, two weeks ago.

He claimed that traditional throat-cutting accompanied by a prayer to give Muslim and Jewish believers halal and kosher meats respectively causes unnecessary suffering to animals and should be banned in Britain as it has been in Denmark.

British pig farmers may raise an eyebrow at that. Denmark’s intensive pig production methods have frequently been criticised. The battle to ban sow tethers and stalls there and in many other European countries has gone on for a decade in defiance of legislation that British pig farmers comply with.

There is no agreement among experts about how the amount of pain suffered by animals differs according to method of slaughter. Is the act of electrical stunning before a throat is cut any less painful than the cutting without stunning?

Blackwell claims it is. He said: “(Animals) will feel the cut. They will feel the massive injury to the tissues of the neck. They will perceive the aspiration of blood they will breathe in before they lose consciousness.” Evidence from a frequently cited New Zealand study from 2009 seems to support his claim. It identified patterns of electrical activity in the brains of animals slaughtered without stunning that indicated they felt pain.

However, an earlier study in Germany indicated that halal killing was more humane than stunning.

And recent research by Strouss and Zivotofsky, reported in Meat Science, suggests that the razor-sharp knife used to slaughter animals destined for kosher meat, severing major organs, arteries and veins, cuts blood supply to the brain in less than two seconds. The arguments will continue. Not only about whether, and how much, pain there is from the different methods, but because allegations of religious prejudice become involved. Jews in particular see criticism of shechita, the kosher method, as an attack on their faith rather than an animal welfare debate.

I’m not an expert on animal slaughter and can only make a few observations from what limited experience I have. At my first farm pig killing, as a child, the unfortunate pig was “stunned” with a mallet before being strung up and its throat cut. Then we moved to shooting the pig, which was an improvement on the mallet. Then to buying bacon from a shop.

The method for killing turkeys was much the same from the first one I helped with to the last more than 20 years ago – hang the bird up by the legs in a canvas funnel, to prevent wings thrashing, and dislocate its neck. Whether it’s being older and wiser or more squeamish, I couldn’t do that now. Was the old farmer’s wife method of killing a hen by chopping its head off with an axe any worse?

I gave up shooting long ago because I was a lousy shot. I have no objections to good shots making instant kills although the industrial scale of pheasant and grouse shoots is a topic for another day.

When it comes to killing the millions of animals a year that we demand as meat-eaters I’ve watched cattle slaughtered in good, moderate and poor slaughterhouses, likewise sheep, pigs and goats. There is no pleasant way to slaughter animals, but in the best operations speed is at maximum and distress at a minimum.

I would say animals I’ve seen dealt with in that way, if they suffered pain, suffered briefly. I wouldn’t say the same of chickens. Hung by one leg they came round on a conveyor, theoretically stunned as their heads passed an electrode, then throats were cut. I can’t see that kosher slaughter, with one rapid knife cut, could be more painful or distressing.

After thinking about it often since Blackwell’s claim was made, I think the same about halal and kosher methods for all animals. If there is a difference it can only be split second.

At bottom, the argument should really be whether meat eating is acceptable or not. Most of us seem to think it is. We want meat and lots of it. That means animals have to be killed in vast numbers. And the differences in how that is done are, in my view, infinitesimal.