UK Still Failing in Humane Slaughter

In 2015, a story emerged that shocked this, ‘our nation of animal lovers’. Video clips of appalling abuse of animals waiting in line to be slaughtered at an abattoir found their way into the public domain via social media and went viral (Mirror, 2015). But these stories are not new. The same thing happened 5 years earlier in 2010 (Guardian, 2010). After the 2010 incident, the government called around 370 UK slaughterhouses to voluntarily install surveillance cameras (CCTV) to “…help enforce legislation against cruelty to animals…“.


Yet, it took another FIVE YEARS before the government, in June 2015, started to talk objectively about introducing legislation to make the installation and use of CCTV equipment mandatory in abattoirs. This step is retrospectively published in their Food and Standards Agency (FSA) animal welfare non-compliance report (FSA, 2016). The following year, in 2016, another shocking video appeared – ironically, caught on the CCTV system in a slaughterhouse – (Guardian, 2016) showing  –

…cow being “violently slammed” against a wall following an argument between two workers; an abattoir worker beating three bulls with a wooden stick and electric prod; and a haulier hitting and kicking cattle during unloading… …sheep being grabbed by the wool and ears or dragged by the horns… …pigs being lifted by their ears and tails…“.

The same article in the Guardian reports on an FSA report, where the paper reports “…more than 4,000 severe breaches of animal welfare regulations over the past two years at British slaughterhouses…“.

The Guardian report goes on to elaborate on these figures.

Animal abuse incidences that are recorded are categorised in 3 categories where Category 2 means “a low-risk isolated incident” and Category 4 is the most serious, meaning “animals were subjected to “avoidable pain, distress or suffering“.

By law, all abattoirs have to have Veterinarians and meat hygiene inspectors on-site while animals are being slaughtered. These FSA-appointed personnel reported a total of 6,859 animal welfare breaches across all Categories during the 3-year period April 2011 to July 2014. During the following period of July 2014 to June 2016, these figures rose dramatically to a total of 9,511 incidence. Of these animal welfare breaches, 4,455 incidences were Category 4 (this is the “…more than 4,000…” figure quoted in the Guardian report, 2016).

The FSA report goes further (Guardian, 2016) – 

…thousands of instances of animals not being stunned properly and in some cases not stunned at all…“.

…chickens and pigs being immersed in tanks of scalding hot water – used to soften the skin and remove hair or feathers – while still alive…

…animals arriving at slaughterhouses already dead. In one case 574 chickens, from a load of 6,072 birds, died after being left on a lorry in very hot conditions…

Although the ‘chickens incident’ involves thousands of animals, it only counted as ONE incident of a breach in welfare.

Fast-forward a year and here we are in 2017. Finally, in August, Slaughterhouses in England (not Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales) have to install CCTV in their abattoirs, use it and make the video available to FSA inspectors on demand (BBC, 2017). Progress at last.

A month later, the FSA published its September 2017 animal welfare non-compliance report (FSA, 2017a), along with a separate section that addressed welfare concerns related to ‘unloading, lairage, movement and restraint, stunning and bleeding‘. What is new about this annex is that it is presented as ‘at-a-glance’ infographics, which make the data clearer and more informative (FSA, 2017b).

The bottom line is that, separate from the ongoing animal welfare concerns raised above, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of animals being intentionally slaughtered while fully conscious and aware of what is happening to them. This is called pre-stun slaughter. The UK Government’s animal welfare regulations require that all animals destined for processing into food are stunned – and rendered unconscious – prior to the final act of slaughter, butchering and processing. However, there are exemptions to the pre-stun slaughter legislation based on religious grounds.

The FSA 2017 infographics are summed up perfectly by the British Veterinary Association (BVA, 2017) –

Slaughter without stunning unnecessarily compromises the welfare of animals at the time of death, however almost a quarter (24.4%) of sheep and goats slaughtered between April and June this year had their throats cut without first being made insensible to pain. An increase from 15% in 2013, when the EU and UK-adopted legislation allowing an exemption for animals that are slaughtered for religious purposes came into force.

The number of chickens being slaughtered without pre-stunning has soared from 3% in 2013 to 18.5% in 2017.

Quotes from President of the BVA, Gudrun Ravetz (BVA, 2017) –

This huge increase in the number of sheep, goats and poultry that are not stunned or not stunned effectively before slaughter is a grave concern to our profession. Millions of individual animals are affected, making this a major animal welfare issue.”

The supply of meat from animals that have not been stunned massively outstrips the demand from the communities for which it is intended and is entering the mainstream market unlabelled.”

In the light of these official figures we reiterate our call for all animals to be stunned before slaughter. If slaughter without stunning is still to be permitted, any meat from this source must be clearly labelled and the supply of non-stun products should be matched with demand.

However, the Magazine, The Scottish Farmer point out that the appalling FSA animal welfare figures do not apply to Scotland. We would like to remind the Scottish government that a fundamental principle in science is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is an ‘absence of evidence’, i.e. data, because Scotland have their own Animal Welfare Laws where it would appear that the recording and reporting of breaches in animal welfare in abattoirs is not required. The magazine does report that the government concedes that “…people living north of the Border could be eating non-stun meat…” (The Scottish Farmer, 2017).

Pre-stun slaughter is cruel and inhumane. Along with the position statement from the RSPCA (RSPCA, 2016), here are some additional studies that you should be aware of. This is what we know from the data we have. Make up your own mind whether or not this practice is acceptable in the UK today.


ABSTRACT (Gregory et al. 2009)
Bovine respiratory tracts were examined for blood following shechita without stunning, halal slaughter without stunning, and captive bolt stunning with sticking. In all three methods the cattle were in the upright (standing) position at the start of bleeding. Those that had not been stunned continued to breathe during the early part of bleeding whilst those that were stunned were not breathing. Nineteen percent of the shechita, 58% of the halal and 21% of the stunned plus stuck cattle had blood lining the inner aspect of the trachea. Thirty six percent, 69% and 31% had blood in the upper bronchi, respectively. Ten percent, 19% and 0% had fine bright red blood-tinged foam in the trachea, respectively. It was concluded that concerns about suffering from airway irritation by blood could apply in animals that are either not stunned before slaughter or do not lose consciousness rapidly whilst blood is present in the respiratory tract.

ABSTRACT (Gregory et al. 2012)
This paper summarises the findings from five studies in eight countries on over 1,500 cattle slaughtered commercially by the halal or shechita methods without stunning. It reports the number of cuts applied to the neck, the cutting methods and the frequency of complications during the bleeding period. Complications during the bleeding period that occurred in some cattle included: (i) delay in the time to collapse, which was interpreted as late loss of consciousness; (ii) premature arrest of bleeding from the carotid arteries due to false aneurysm formation; and (iii) blood entering the respiratory tract during bleeding. These features are important as they determine or reflect the duration of consciousness following the cut and the potential for protracted suffering from wound nociception or blood irritating the respiratory tract. When cattle were not restrained following the halal cut, they took on average 20 s to collapse. Fourteen percent stood up again after an initial collapse, and 1.5% took more than 4 min before their final collapse. Eight percent took 60 s or longer to collapse, and those animals were more likely to have false aneurysms in the severed ends of the carotid arteries. False aneurysms, which were at least 3 cm in diameter, formed in the severed cardiac ends of the carotid arteries in 10% of cattle slaughtered by halal or shechita. Some false aneurysms formed in the severed ends of the carotid arteries within 7 s of the halal cut, and in 10% of the cattle bloodflow came to a halt in one of the arteries within 10 s. On average, the false aneurysms developed within 21 s. Nineteen percent of cattle slaughtered by shechita and 58% of cattle slaughtered by halal had blood lining the mucosa of the trachea. All animals had blood lining the glottis. In both situations there could be a sense of respiratory tract irritation from the blood. It is proposed that severing the carotids at the position in the neck which corresponds to C1 will reduce the frequency of false aneurysm formation and subsequent arrested bloodflow from the severed arteries, and it will deafferent the respiratory tract reducing the transmission of potentially unpleasant sensory signals associated with blood contaminating the upper and lower parts of the tract. Most cattle subjected to halal and shechita have the neck cut at a position which corresponds to C2 to C4, and changing to a cut at C1 could partly reduce the potential for suffering during slaughter without stunning.

ABSTRACT (Gibson et al., 2015)
This study examined the effect of neck cut position on the time to physical collapse in upright restrained halal slaughtered cattle (n = 644). Time to collapse was used as an indirect indicator of the early stages of onset of unconsciousness. Cattle were slaughtered with either a conventional low (LNC) (n = 561) or a high neck cut (HNC) (n = 83). Mean time to final collapse was higher in the LNC compared to HNC group (18.9 ± 1.1 s and 13.5 ± 1.3 s respectively (P < 0.01)). The mean false aneurysm scores were higher in the LNC cattle (0.8 ± 0.0) compared to the HNC (0.6 ± 0.1) (P < 0.01). Animals that took > 20 s to final collapse had larger false aneurysms. In summary, the HNC reduced the mean time to final collapse and the frequency of animals that took longer than 20 s to collapse.


© copyright Robert Falconer-Taylor, 2017
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Images used in this article

  1. CCTV cameras. By Bree~commonswiki (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
  2. Amiens. 10/07/15. Abattoir. Capitaine Légigand Raoul Berthelé [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
  3. Qibbla Halal chicken. By Christopher Forster (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.
  4. Lésions cutanées de rouget observées à l’abattoir. By GP MARTINEAU (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

BBC, 2017. CCTV to be compulsory in all abattoirs in England. Accessed 26/09/2017.

BVA, 2017. Grave concern over rise in animals killed without stunning, say vets. Accessed 26/09/2017.

FSA, 2016. Food Standards Agency FSA 16/09/04 ANIMAL WELFARE. Accessed 26/09/2017.

FSA, 2017a. Board Meeting – 20 September 2017. ANIMAL WELFARE UPDATE. Accessed 26/09/2017.

FSA, 2017b. Animal Welfare non-compliances for Q1 2017/18. Accessed 26/09/2017.

Gibson, T.J., Dadios, N. and Gregory, N.G., 2015. Effect of neck cut position on time to collapse in halal slaughtered cattle without stunning. Meat science, 110, pp.310-314.

Gregory, N.G., Von Wenzlawowicz, M. and Von Holleben, K., 2009. Blood in the respiratory tract during slaughter with and without stunning in cattle. Meat science, 82(1), pp.13-16.

Gregory, N.G., von Wenzlawowicz, M., von Holleben, K., Fielding, H.R., Gibson, T.J., Mirabito, L. and Kolesar, R., 2012. Complications during shechita and halal slaughter without stunning in cattle. Animal Welfare, 21(S2), pp.81-86.

Guardian, 2010. Secret abattoir video shows ‘sickening’ abuse of animals Accessed 26/09/2017.

Guardian, 2016. FSA: 4,000 major breaches of animal welfare laws at UK abattoirs in two years. Accessed 26/09/2017.

Mirror, 2015. Accessed 26/09/2017.

RSPCA, 2016. Slaughter without pre-stunning. Accessed 26/09/2017.

The Scottish Farmer, 2017. No place for non-stun slaughter in Scotland. Accessed 26/09/2017.