The issue of  “no-stun slaughter” has hit the headlines in the UK press this week and there’s a fair bit of confusion about what’s going on. The current discussion has been prompted by the British Veterinary Association’s petition to end no-stun slaughter in the UK. It’s a debate that’s long overdue: consumers should have a right to know the background to the meat that they’re eating, and currently in the UK and Ireland, it’s impossible to tell if an animal was stunned or not prior to slaughter. That’s not fair to the consumer, and the absence of the need to declare the type of slaughter is likely to increase the number of animals that are killed without being stunned first, so it’s unfair to animals too.

Killing is by definition an unpleasant business, with physical trauma to a living creature and spilling of blood. For some individuals, animal slaughter is so abhorrent, that vegetarianism is the only answer (7 – 11% of the UK population is vegetarian, with twice as many women as men). But for the majority of citizens in the United Kingdom, meat is a desirable part of the diet, and slaughtering animals is seen as a necessary part of society. Legislation has been put into place to ensure that animals suffer as little as possible during the process, and this is enough to satisfy most people.

To ensure that animals do not suffer as they die, the law insists that the animal is first stunned e.g. with a captive bolt applied to the brain, or via a strong electric shock to the head. This pre-stunning means that the animal is completely unaware when its throat is cut a few minutes later: there is no sensation of the knife passing through the flesh, nor the blood draining away.
There is one exception to this rule: so-called ritual, or no-stun slaughter. When this is done, the throat is cut with a sharp knife with no preamble, and the animal is conscious for that short period as it bleeds to death. In the current media debate, the meat industry seems to be blurring the lines of what this means: a spokesman for the British Meat Processors Association is reported as saying “What kills the animal is having its vital arteries cut; it doesn’t die from stunning”.  He seems to be avoiding the fact that there’s a gap between having the vital arteries cut and dying, and during that gap, the animal is conscious of what’s happening to it. When an animal has been stunned, there is no such consciousness of what’s going on.

No-stun slaughter is an important part of some religious communities. Current animal welfare legislation requires all animals to be stunned before slaughter apart from exceptions for those religious groups: Dhabihah slaughter for Halal food as part of the Islam faith, and Shechita slaughter for Kosher food as part of Jewish beliefs. There is variation within religious communities, with some Muslims accepting meat pre-stunned electrically and some not. Around 80% of Halal meat is currently pre-stunned: this fact makes the debate murky when newspapers like the Daily Mail talk about “Halal meat” being the issue, rather than “no-stun slaughter”.

The Muslim and Jewish communities comprise just 4-5% of the British population. Around 3% of cattle, 10% of sheep and goats and 4% of poultry are killed by non-stun slaughter in the UK (pigs, or course, are never killed in this way because pork is not eaten by these religious communities).

No-stun slaughter of sheep and goats increased by 70% between 2003 and 2011 to 1.5 million animals a year. Non-stun slaughter of poultry increased 300% in the same period to 32 million. Part of the reason for this increase is that non-stun slaughter meat enters the mainstream food chain without being labelled: it’s more convenient for the food industry to have “no-stun” meat as a default: it can be eaten by all consumers, whereas pre-stunned meat cannot be eaten by religious communities. It is partly this increasing trend towards no-stun slaughter that has motivated animal welfare advocates to press for action on this issue.

On the face of it, the argument is straightforward: if we have standards for animal welfare that we believe in, we should stick to those standards, even if it means stopping ritual slaughter. In practice, it is more complicated: bans of ritual slaughter target Muslim and Jewish minorities, so legitimate animal welfare concerns get mixed up with anti-semitic and anti-immigrant voices. This can make it difficult to be against ritual slaughter without being accused of being racist. And it can mean that the strongest political allies against no-stun slaughter include political parties with anti-minority views.

After many years of debate on this issue, the British Veterinary Association (BVA), with the support of the RSPCA, has recently launched a government e-petition to end non-stun slaughter. The BVA hopes to achieve 100,000 signatures to the e-petition, which would mean that the government would have to have a debate on the issue in the House of Commons. Within a few days, over 11000 signatures were received and the number is rapidly climbing. No-stun slaughter is about to become an active political debate in the UK.
So far slaughter without prior stunning has been banned in Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden and Poland. Will the UK soon join this group?