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Animal Slaughter, Usually Hidden From View, Provokes Public Debate

03/09/2014 15:27 | Updated 07 November 2014

By Amy Jeffs, BA (recent graduate), University of Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE, England -- An e-petition is calling for Parliament to impose a U.K.-wide ban on kosher and halal slaughter techniques, which petition promoters deem cruel and unnecessary. It is gathering signatures via the HM Government website until April 2015.

According to the e-petition, "Scientific evidence shows that non-stun slaughter allows animals to perceive pain and compromises welfare." On behalf of the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals and numerous other animal rights groups, it asks the British public to judge the quality of slaughter methods on the grounds of animal welfare.

Religious slaughter methods, like halal and kosher slaughter, allow an animal to be killed without pre-stunning. Without stunning, animals die from loss of blood, which may take several minutes, during which the animal is conscious and in pain.

The ethics of these religious no-stun methods of slaughter are being hotly debated in the U.K., but in an environment where the public is ill-informed about the alternatives. Several factors, including detachment from the meat production process, have left U.K. citizens either squeamish or indifferent to the subject of animals being killed for meat. Often, the public wants to eat meat but doesn't want to know where it has come from.


A grade school in Kent raises a lamb to teach its students about the food cycle. But should they draw a line when it comes to animal slaughter?; Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are plenty of environmental, economic and animal welfare reasons why a better-informed public is a good thing. The no-stun controversy notwithstanding, many of the issues in the slaughter industry arise from unprecedented consumer demand and competition with cheap imported meat. This has led to a drop in the number of red-meat abattoirs in England, from 250 in 2001 to 193 in 2013. The family-run abattoir is a dying business, as larger abattoirs soak up the slaughter market. They are able to deal with the stock as quickly as possible and maximize efficiency.

In Scotland, closures of small-scale abattoirs have caused farmers to send their stock to England for slaughter, sometimes several hundreds of miles away to Essex in the southern part of the country. This is very taxing for the animals, and it is not uncommon for stock to die en route. It also increases the risk of disease outbreaks, as with foot-and-mouth disease.

Only 1 percent of the British public works in agriculture, but 98 percent of the population eats meat (around 24 kilograms a year). Very few consumers know anything about a meat industry that they nevertheless support with their purchases. Distance and processing have rendered animal slaughter almost invisible. Many say that institutions like schools and the media need to educate and inform so that consumers can buy responsibly.

Alison Hopton is a primary school teacher and animal rights activist. Based on her experience working with school-age children, she says, getting them interested in meat is not easy. "Many children are not interested in where their meat comes from because their parents aren't," says Hopton. "As a society, I believe we will become even more sanitized and detached from the meat food chain. We have to change the way we teach children about food and meat production."

Initiatives do exist that aim to address this issue. The School Farms Network has set up small-scale farms across the U.K. so that schoolchildren have the opportunity to learn where their meat comes from. Brian Jordan, head teacher at one such school, Bebington High Sports College, said in a 2013 press release, "Our vision is to help young people today to know where food is sourced, how it is grown and the care needed to ensure the animals have a good life before they end up on our table."

However, teaching about slaughter can become a real problem, too. In 2010, the head teacher of a school in Kent resigned after receiving personal threats related to the Marcus the Lamb incident. The area is famous for sheep farming, and Marcus was hand-reared by students as a project to teach them about the food cycle. That meant that, eventually, Marcus the Lamb would have to die and be sold for his meat. The majority of parents, students and governing members of the school supported the head teacher's decision to send Marcus to the slaughterhouse to raise money for the acquisition of more animals, which is what happened.

A small number of parents led by local mother Jo Davis objected vociferously to the plan. According to a BBC article about the incident, she said, "My daughter was told it was no different to buying lamb from the supermarket," adding, "I really don't think this is the same thing." In her view, the issue was her child's emotional connection to Marcus rather than moral objections to his death. She also said some pupils were left "traumatized" after Marcus was finally killed.

A similar story hit the headlines in February of this year. A butcher's shop in Sudbury, Suffolk, was forced to remove its window displays, which often consisted of the carcasses of feathered poultry and game, unskinned rabbits and disembodied pigs' heads. Parents in the town complained that such displays were upsetting children. A father was quoted in The Guardian saying, "I, too, have been disgusted at the needless display of multiple mutilated carcasses on display." He added that he'd "rather not look at bloody severed pigs' heads when buying sweets." Despite the considerable publicity this scandal generated, the butcher's shop was permitted to reinstate its displays.

When people make the facts of slaughter publicly visible, it seems to be the visibility that is criticized rather than the moral issue of killing animals for meat. Most recently, novelist Jeanette Winterson posted a photograph of a rabbit carcass and its skin on her Twitter page with the caption, "Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating the rabbit." She then supplemented the image with a photograph of her cat eating the rabbit's liver. A barrage of complaints post followed the Twitter post. "A good tip for you, Winterson ... grow your herbs inside if you don't want rabbits to eat it. Vile woman," said one. The media, with a taste for the grotesque, highlighted lurid descriptions of the cat eating the rabbit's liver. Winterson did receive some support, including an encouraging tweet from a vegetarian, who claimed this was better than the fate of industrially farmed animals.

Kate Fowler is an animal rights activist and head campaigner for Animal Aid, the largest animal rights group in the U.K. While she ultimately endorses veganism, her priority is for slaughter techniques to be improved, as much in abattoirs that use stun methods as in those that do not. She is currently behind a campaign to install closed-circuit TV in all British abattoirs.

She told me that conscientious consumers will often pay more for meat to ensure it has experienced a higher welfare standard, but what is actually needed is greater transparency. "Meat consumption would decrease if people saw what was going on," she said.

In 2009, Animal Aid filmed in nine, randomly selected abattoirs in the U.K. Eight out of nine of them were breaking animal welfare laws. Even in a Soil Association-approved abattoir, the footage I watched showed kicking, undue force and sudden failures in the hoist (presumably due to poor maintenance), so that one sheep fell headfirst from ceiling level onto the concrete floor. "Paying extra for meat doesn't necessarily mean you are not funding cruelty," Fowler explained.

On the other hand, she also believes that most of the population is happy that "somebody else does the dirty work." She believes that increased visibility would mean a better-informed public and a greater likelihood of improvement in this massive industry.

Detractors say that given the extent of the demand for meat in the U.K, centralized slaughterhouses are the best way to meet it. Gloucestershire-based livestock farmer Roger Meadows said that the larger abattoirs are often better than their smaller counterparts. "Good management, good systems, they can be fantastic. You've got to understand the system they are part of, with constant auditing. They can't afford to be doing it wrong, they really can't," he said.

But in another corner of Gloucestershire, I visited Broomhalls Ltd., a small, family-run abattoir that places an emphasis on doing it right. At Broomhalls, they slaughter animals from large and small farms alike and sometimes sell the meat in their own butcher's shop.

There are relatively few slaughterhouses this small in the U.K. It is run by lifelong slaughtermen and butchers Steve Broomhall and his brother Robert, who took over the business from their father. At Broomhalls, they slaughter on Mondays and Wednesdays, starting work at 7 a.m. The livestock, in this case pigs, are kept in a lairage (holding pen) behind the main slaughtering room, after being checked over by a vet. The pigs can hear and smell everything that goes on, but when I visited they seemed mostly interested in sleeping, except for when I walked over to them and they stood up in obvious agitation.

I asked Steve if he thinks the pigs know what's coming. In response, he shouted over the noise of the boiler, "Well, they aren't climbing up the walls, are they?"

Final steps of the slaughter process at Broomhalls Ltd.; Source: Student Reporter / Amy JeffsAs I watched the slaughter process, each pig was led through a hatch to where Steve waited with the electrical stunning rods. The pig was stunned and raised unconscious off the ground by its back leg. It should not regain consciousness, at least not if the stunning has been performed correctly. The pig was then stuck with a single wound to the jugular with a knife. "The sharper it is, the faster and cleaner the cut," Steve said. The knife's target is the width of a pencil and concealed beneath several layers of skin and fat, and the cut is about the size and shape of an almond.

Steve said it takes a lot of practice to get it right. "I don't let just anyone stick a pig, mind. Some of the lads, they come in here and I let them gut and clean them, but I don't let them slaughter," he said. "They don't have 'it.'"

"It," he explained, is the ability to work competently, cleanly and confidently.

The pig was then bled over a large concrete drain, referred to as the blood bath. The carcass still thrashed at this point, due to residual nerve impulses. It was then transferred to a boiler, filled with water at 62 degrees C, and turned for two and a half minutes, until the first layers of skin and bristles were removed. Afterward, it was scraped, the hard, fingernail-like shell of the trotters pulled from the feet, the last bristles burned off with a blowtorch, and the skin washed with a hose. At Broomhalls, this whole process was conducted by a team of three or four men. Once the pig was gutted, washed through and sawed in half, it was conveyed to the meat vet, who conducted routine checks to ensure the meat was fit for human consumption.

At Broomhalls, the process was quick and efficient, and I saw no unnecessary suffering. But every stage of the job seemed physically hard; removing the guts means having your forearms almost constantly covered in blood. The air was muggy, filled with pungent steam from the boiler, heat from the blowtorch and the smell of burned bristles and warm meat. Steve said he had one visitor, a veterinary student, who just couldn't take it. "She left in tears. Just went. Did ring up to say thank you, though." When I asked him more generally about public perceptions of slaughter, he replied, "They [the public] really don't want to know. It's just something they accept."

Broomhall asked me not to take pictures or film the bleeding process. "People don't understand," he said. "They see twitching, and they think it's alive. It's a messy old job. You try to keep it all clean. An operating theater would be exactly the same."

His greatest concern was that people would misinterpret those images, reacting squeamishly and without the knowledge needed to enable them to differentiate the nature of slaughter from real cruelty. I asked him if greater transparency on the part of abattoirs could be part of the solution. For instance, Danish food processing company Danish Crown offer tours for up to 55 people at its slaughterhouses.

However, Steve is not open to such tours, convinced that the public would not understand the process and that his business could suffer if it was misrepresented in the media. With the potential for viral publicity on the Internet, it is not surprising he is unwilling to put his livelihood on the line. The story of Marcus the Lamb and the resignation of the head teacher, while an anomaly, is a cautionary tale. But the situation will improve only if consumers engage more with the process of slaughter. Whether it's Marcus the Lamb or the no-stun slaughter methods in kosher and halal abattoirs, it is clear that we have a lot to learn about the sensitive nexus between live animals as we perceive them and the meat we eat.

This story was originally published on studentreporter.org on September 2nd, 2014. Last two images (of the slaughterhouse) were taking by and belong to the author, Amy Jeffs.