Opinion: It’s time to label all meat as stunned or unstunned at slaughter

By Danny Chambers – New Scientist

One solution to concern over how animals are killed for our plates is labelling that makes this welfare distinction plain on all meat, says Danny Chambers

Slaughterhouse rules

Some followers of the Islamic faith believe that meat cannot be considered Halal if the animal is pre-stunned. However, there are many Muslims who believe pre-stunning is compatible with halal slaughter; as a result about 80 per cent of halal meat in the UK is stunned before slaughter. However, pre-stunning is not considered compatible with Jewish shechita slaughter – so all kosher meat is unstunned.

Slaughter without pre-stunning is increasing. According to figures published by the Food Standards Agency, in 2011 around 10 per cent of sheep and 4 per cent of poultry died like this in the UK, but by 2017 this had increased to 24 per cent of sheep and 19 per cent of poultry. Approximately 3.3 million sheep and goats were slaughtered without pre-stunning in 2017, and 180 million chickens. This is of great concern to many farmers, to veterinary and animal welfare organisations, to many religious people and to the public.

What is the answer? From a welfare point of view, a ban of non-stunned slaughter would be ideal, but failing that, a legal requirement to label meat as stunned or non-stunned would allow consumers to choose better welfare if they so wished.

George Eustice, the UK farming minister, recently indicated that the government will consider some form of labelling after the country leaves the European Union. Do it along welfare lines. Market forces would then dictate whether there was demand for non-stunned meat, whether classified as religiously slaughtered or not.

Look out for tractors

Currently, the easiest way to tell which meat has been produced according to high-welfare standards is to look for products accredited with one of the various farm assured scheme logos such as “Red Tractor” or “RSPCA Assured”, because these require animals to be stunned before slaughter. But there are many other meat products on shop shelves.

Labelling products on religious grounds would not be that helpful. Consumers need to be able to distinguish between stunned and non-stunned halal meat. Many people are not aware that the hindquarters of animals from shechita slaughter are not considered to be kosher so are sold, unlabelled, in the general food chain.

Perhaps those petitioning for change could take a leaf out of the British Veterinary Association’s stance on this: “We believe that all animals should be stunned before slaughter to render them insensible to pain. Scientific evidence supports the use of pre-stunning to improve animal welfare. Our concerns have nothing to do with the expression of religious beliefs but with the practice of killing by throat cutting without pre-stunning.”

To make progress on these issues, put the focus on welfare rather than religion.

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