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Is all non-stun slaughter the same?
  1. Josh Loeb

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The BVA’s policy on non-stun slaughter is clear. The association is opposed to non-stun slaughter – full stop. Indeed, it believes non-stun slaughter should be banned.

That’s hardly surprising. In general, there is consensus among vets that non-stun methods of slaughtering livestock are worse for welfare than using a captive bolt gun, electrical waterbath or other means of rendering an animal insensible to pain before slaughtering it.

However, ‘in general’ is the operative phrase. In one specific area – namely, non-stun slaughter of poultry – that consensus appears less strong. Several vets who are implacably opposed to non-stun slaughter of cattle and sheep have acknowledged that the situation as regards birds is more complex.

Some senior vets have told me they ‘don’t really have a problem’ with the Jewish method of slaughter, known as shechita, in the specific case of poultry. They cite differences in the anatomy of birds compared with mammals and the fact that at least one of the main methods of stunning poultry – the electrical waterbath – might well constitute a less humane process than simply slitting a bird’s throat without stunning it.

Vets who are perhaps more sympathetic towards shechita point out that the throughput at kosher poultry slaughterhouses is comparatively low, allowing birds to be killed ‘individually’, rather than being processed ‘on the line’.

That, in turn, is distinct from the situation in halal slaughterhouses, where birds killed without prior stunning may still be processed mechanically. To complicate the situation further, while kosher religious authorities do not accept stunning of any sort, several major halal authorities do accept some types of stunning. However, where such methods are used, an electrical frequency that might not actually stun chickens can legally be used in England – meaning the ‘stun’ may not necessarily be effective.

As Vet Record reports this week, two experts on welfare at slaughter have admitted there is little, if any, scientific evidence that shechita slaughter of poultry is necessarily worse for welfare than methods involving stunning. For their part, Jewish proponents of shechita insist their method is humane.

Belief is not enough – proof is needed

Absence of evidence should not necessarily be interpreted as evidence of an absence of welfare harms and there may be a case for introducing a ban as a precautionary measure. However, for anyone wishing to argue from a scientific perspective, absence of evidence is obviously a problem. Without established facts, a situation arises whereby each side declares that its sincere belief justifies its particular stance. But belief is not enough – proof is needed.

It would therefore be useful to conduct an independent scientific study comparing, from a welfare perspective, non-stun shechita slaughter of poultry with stun-slaughter methods – for example, the electrical waterbath, gas and the promising new low atmospheric pressure method.

Both Shechita UK – a Jewish group lobbying against the BVA’s proposed ban on non-stun slaughter – and the BVA are understood to have indicated that they are in principle open to the idea of such a study. In an area where there appears to be precious little agreement between involved parties, that, surely, is an avenue worth exploring.

This issue might at first glance seem niche, but hundreds of millions of broiler chickens are slaughtered annually in the UK. Shechita slaughter accounts for less than 1 per cent of the total killed, with halal non-stun and halal stunned accounting for 9 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively.

There is no suggestion the BVA’s concern about non-stun slaughter has anything to do with the expression of religious belief – yet, in spite of that, religious groups say they perceive calls to ban non-stun slaughter as an attack on their faith.

To help dispel that suspicion, the veterinary profession should put its faith in science.

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