ONLY in the household of a veterinarian is it normal to have a coffee table littered with magazines bearing pictures of unpleasant medical conditions in horses, cows, rabbits etc.
The Offspring, it has to be said, barely give them a second glance. They’ve grown up with images of glistening tumours and severe gill necrosis, zoonotic diseases and sheep with scary reddened eyeballs glaring out at them from the cover of the Veterinary Record. These are the same children who have, from an early age, seen their father operate and have been trained in the art of cat restraint (they’re better at medicating our felines than I am).
I, however, remain squeamish and have learned to avert my eyes when the Vet Record, pearl of professional wisdom that it is, drops through the letterbox.
Only occasionally do I pluck up courage and glance through the articles while drinking my morning coffee, carefully avoiding anything with a picture of diseased entrails or parasitic activity.
So on Wednesday morning I was skimming through one of the June issues and came across an article entitled Stunning at Slaughter.
As I also have an aversion to thoughts of slaughterhouses I almost didn’t read it. But the alternative was the cover story (for once illustrated with a picture of a healthy animal), ‘Effects of soaking on the water-soluble carbohydrate and crude protein content of hay’. I thought Stunning at Slaughter might prove to be more interesting.
As, indeed, it was.
According to one of the British Veterinary Association’s past presidents, Bill Reilly, many of us are probably consuming ritually-slaughtered meat without realising it. He is calling for changes in meat labelling so that consumers concerned about animal welfare know the exact provenance of their food.
He offered up some disturbing statistics. Dialrel, an EU-funded project looking into ritual slaughter, estimates that each year 2.1m animals in the UK are slaughtered according to the Jewish ritual practice shechita and yet 70% of the meat from these animals is not consumed by the Jewish community.
Halal meat, ritually slaughtered for observant Muslims, now has a 25% share of the meat market in the UK (figures provided by the Halal Food Authority) and yet Muslims account for less than 4% of the total population.
Mr Reilly surmises that this means tons of ritually-slaughtered meat is being sold on the open market to non-Jewish and non-Muslim consumers.
Of course, I strongly suspect that many meat eaters don’t really care where their food comes from or how it was slaughtered. They are mostly concerned with how much it costs and see it as something nicely sanitised, wrapped in cling film and arranged in a supermarket chiller cabinet.
But, in this case, the issue is whether or not animals are stunned before slaughter. I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that all slaughter is unpleasant and there’s really no nice way to do it.
Mr Reilly points out that current EU Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) regulations allow each country to make its own rules on whether slaughter without pre-stunning is permissible. In the UK it has been decided that stunning is the humane norm and only meat intended for consumption by Jewish and Muslim communities is exempt.
Quite clearly, says Mr Reilly, the fact that both shechita and halal meat is being over-produced contravenes this regulation.
Ritual slaughter is often defended as being less traumatic for the animal than traditional Western methods of captive-bolt stunning or electrocution before killing.
However, many expert groups of veterinary and animal welfare specialists say categorically that not to stun an animal before slaughter results in considerable pain and distress. A report from the Farm Animal Welfare Council concludes that ‘slaughter without pre-stunning is unacceptable.’
The Man-in-Charge, who had to work in slaughterhouses as part of his training, says he witnessed the ritual slaughter of a cow in a Glasgow slaughterhouse and believes it to have been a great deal more traumatic for the animal than death by captive bolt.
The ritual involved strapping the cow it into a drum, which was then inverted to suspend the animal upside down. Its throat was cut while still conscious. It is difficult to imagine how it could not have experienced both pain and fear. In contrast, the MIC says that cows going to ‘normal’ slaughter walk into a pen still chewing their cud, the bolt is fired at their skull and, usually, they are rendered instantly unconscious or instantly dead.
However, it may be that ritual slaughter is not necessarily the worst way to die for all animals. He also believes it may actually be the best way to kill chickens because conventional slaughterhouse methods are so brutal and so mechanised that some birds meet their end fully conscious and injured from being hung by their legs prior to despatch. A quick chop to the neck, he says, would be preferable.
Stunning is expressly forbidden in the Jewish culture as they insist that an animal must be healthy and uninjured at the time of slaughter. The Halal Food Authority is less strict on the matter and says stunning is permissible as long as the animal doesn’t die instantly as a result. Dialrel figures show that up to 75% of cattle and 90% of small ruminants (sheep) are pre-stunned for halal meat in the EU.
But without mandatory labelling, of course, no-one knows whether they’re buying kosher meat, stunned or non-stunned halal meat. Only the RSPCA’s Freedom Food label gives buyers an assurance of ethical origins.
And, like Mr Reilly, I would like to know so that I can make an informed decision.