For slaughter to be considered even remotely humane, it is imperative that animals be stunned unconscious first. In Australian abattoirs stunning is standard and accepted by most religious authorities — however a disputed legal 'loophole' has led to a small number of Australian sheep abattoirs practising ritual slaughter without stunning.
In Australia approximately 32 million sheep and 8 million cattle are killed in abattoirs each year for human consumption (both domestic and export). The vast majority of sheep are pre-stunned in accordance with the relevant Australian Standard, and in line with State legislation (for domestic consumption) and federal legislation (for export). All cattle killed in Australian abattoirs are restrained upright and stunned during slaughter, including those killed in compliance with halal (Islamic) requirements. A small number of cattle killed for the Jewish community (kosher slaughter) are stunned immediately after the throat cut.
Australia's trade in chilled and frozen 'halal accredited' meat to the Middle East and other markets is increasing significantly each year. The majority of this meat comes from animals that were stunned before slaughter. Frozen and chilled mutton and lamb exports to the Middle East grew to over 117,000 tonnes in 2014 — a rise of 29% for mutton and 7% for lamb (source: MLA). Total boxed sheep meat exports were worth $2.2 billion in 2013-14: twelve times as much as live sheep exports (source: ABARES).
Islamic and Jewish leaders in Australia largely accept the stunning of animals. Halal and Kosher slaughter requires (amongst other things) that the animal not be injured at the time of slaughter. As electrical stunning (for sheep) and percussion stunning (of cattle) doesn't injure the animal — stunning is part of acceptable ritual slaughter in Australia both for domestic consumption and export.
In most abattoirs sheep come along a narrow race to the slaughter area, electric tongs are placed on either side of the sheep's head, and are held there for around 2 seconds. The sheep is rendered unconscious and the 'stun' will last for around 45 seconds. Electrical stunning itself does not injure the sheep. Industry standards state that the sheep's throat must then be cut without delay (after the stun) to ensure bleed out (insufficient blood/oxygen to maintain life) prior to the time the sheep would normally regain consciousness. Once 'bled out' the sheep's body will then be hoisted onto a processing line to be skinned, gutted, and cut up.
Similarly cattle will be walked along a raceway, and then into a walled box area. A head neck restraint is applied and the animals will be stunned, usually with a captive bolt or percussion 'gun'. The unconscious animal is then released onto a platform where slaughter begins.
The science related to the duration of consciousness after slaughter
There have been many studies to determine the degree and duration of sensibility, consciousness, pain and suffering involved with unstunned slaughter. The time observed for the interval from throat cut to unconsciousness for sheep has varied in those studies from 2 seconds to 20 seconds. For cattle consciousness has been recorded up to some 2 minutes. The delay to unconsciousness can be considerably longer if the blood vessels are not successfully cut, or if occlusion occurs — the vessels close before bleeding out is complete.
The most recent substantive review of the literature is the 'Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare' on a request from the [EU] Commission. It states in part:
Extract from Section 1.1
'The animals which are slaughtered have systems for detecting and feeling pain and, as a result of the cut and the blood loss, if not stunned, their welfare will be poor because of pain, fear and other adverse effects. The cuts which are used in order that rapid bleeding occurs involve substantial tissue damage in areas well supplied with pain receptors. The rapid decrease in blood pressure which follows the blood loss is readily detected by the conscious animal and elicits fear and panic. Poor welfare also results when conscious animals inhale blood because of bleeding into the trachea. Without stunning, the time between cutting through the major blood vessels and insensibility, as deduced from behavioural and brain response, is up to 20 seconds in sheep, up to 25 seconds in pigs, up to 2 minutes in cattle, up to 2.5 or more minutes in poultry, and sometimes 15 minutes or more in fish.'
Published in 'The EFSA Journal' (2004), 45, 1-29] (emphasis added).
The current law re stunning and slaughter
Slaughter standards in commercial abattoirs are dictated by the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption (AS 4696 — 2007), which requires that:
AS4696 — Slaughter —
7.09: Animals are slaughtered in a way that prevents unnecessary injury, pain and suffering to them and causes them the least practicable disturbance.
7.10: Before sticking commences animals are stunned in a way that ensures that the animals are unconscious and insensible to pain before sticking occurs and do not regain consciousness or sensibility before dying.
AS4696 — Ritual Slaughter —
(1) This provision only applies to animals killed under an approved arrangement that provides for ritual slaughter involving sticking without prior stunning;
(2) An animal that is stuck without first being stunned and is not rendered unconscious as part of its ritual slaughter is stunned without delay after it is stuck to ensure that it is rendered unconscious.
These slaughter practices are enforced by the relevant licensing bodies, including the State Meat Authorities under the relevant State Meat Industry Acts, and by the Department of Agriculture (DA) for the Commonwealth. The Export Control Act and Regulations also require compliance with the Standards for all exported meat products (compliance managed by DA veterinary officers stationed in each export abattoir).
In addition, in 2005 (updated in 2009) the Australian Meat Industry Council (representing abattoir owners) developed and implemented the AMIC 'Industry Animal Welfare Standards for Livestock Processing Establishments' which integrate the national Codes of Practice, relevant State and Commonwealth legislation and other commercial requirements.
Those Standards (similarly) require that 'Livestock are effectively stunned with appropriate equipment for the species and class of livestock' (Standard 6, principle 2).
Current situation in regard to exemptions from the Standards
Information was first provided to Animals Australia in mid-2007 indicating that several small abattoirs had permission to kill sheep without stunning.
Some abattoirs perform unstunned kosher and halal slaughter of sheep (not cattle) — operating under 'approved arrangements' issued by either the federal Department of Agriculture (for export abattoris) or State meat authorities (for domestic abattoirs). A former federal Minister for Agriculture called for a review of existing ritual slaughter standards and these exemptions. After considerable delay, a scientific review on the welfare risks of unstunned slaughter was completed in late 2008 (see media coverage). There have now been two Australian review papers, both of which confirm the suffering involved in slaughter without stunning — these papers are available here and here.
The unstunned slaughter of some sheep continues in several small Australian (domestic) abattoirs using an existing (and still legally disputed) loophole. This meat can be sold in Australia without being labelled as such. It is understood that no exemptions are currently in place for export abattoirs.
Stunning is effective in the vast majority of cases, however even in the most well managed facilities there is always a risk that the stunning procedure may fail. A small percentage of animals may need to be stunned again before losing sensibility, and on rare occasions animals may even 'wake up' during the slaughter process. Whilst prior stunning is the only way to ensure that slaughter is conducted in a remotely humane way, the truth is that the only way individuals can be certain that animals do not suffer during slaughter, is to consider cruelty-free alternatives.
And add your voice to calls to close the non-stun slaughter legal loophole in Australia.