The questions and answers below provide principal information about the meat supply chain and how livestock are transported and slaughtered for food. They also help explain how legislation and modern methods of stunning and slaughter work to protect the welfare of animals during transport, marketing and slaughter.
Every year in the UK approximately 2.6 million cattle, 10 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep and lambs, 80 million fish and 950 million birds are slaughtered for human consumption. Animals should always be reared, transported and slaughtered humanely.
As an interested consumer you may wish to have an understanding of how EU and UK legislation protects and regulates the welfare of food animals beyond the farm gate.
The Government is responsible for enforcing legislation. The European Union legislates either thorough Directives or Regulations. Directives may give Member States greater flexibility to enforce higher standards within their own country, but all Member States must enforce the minimum requirements laid down in the Directive. However, it can take several years for the Member States to enact the Directive into their national legislation. Regulations are directly enforceable in all Member States immediately they become law, although there may be provision for Member States to impose higher standards through national legislation. Further details and full access to all the laws mentioned below may be found at https://www.gov.uk/animal-welfare.
EU Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2005 on the protection of animals during transport and related operations sets out the requirements for the humane transport of livestock, for example to slaughterhouses, for export abroad or when travelling to livestock markets. In addition in the UK farmed animals are protected by the Welfare of Animals (Transport) Orders (2006/07) for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Animals be must fit for the proposed journey and must be transported in such a way that avoids any suffering or infliction of injury. If the journey distance exceeds 65km, drivers are required to hold a certificate of competence.
In the UK animals being sold through livestock markets are protected by the Welfare of Animals at Markets Order (1990)and The Welfare of Horses at Markets (and Other Places of Sale) Order (1990). This legislation lays down rules to ensure that all livestock passing through markets are treated humanely. The order enforces provisions for animal handling by trained and competent stockmen, specifications for facilities and equipment and procedures for dealing with casualty animals.
The HSA publication Humane Handling of Livestock provides guidance on the humane handling of animals on farm, in markets, during loading and unloading for transport and up to the point of slaughter.
EU Directive 93/119/EC protects animals at the time of slaughter or killing and is implemented in Great Britain by the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 (as amended). Animals bred or kept for the production of meat, skin, fur or other products must be spared any avoidable excitement, pain or suffering during movement, lairaging (keeping animals in stalls, pens, covered areas or fields at a slaughterhouse before they are slaughtered), restraint, stunning, slaughter or killing. The EU adopted Council Directive Regulation (EC) No. 1099/2009 in September 2009. This came into effect on January 1st 2013, replacing EU Directive 93/119/EC. The Regulation is directly applicable in all EU Member States, but does not prevent Member States from maintaining any national rules aimed at ensuring more extensive protection of animals.
Slaughter can be humane if an animal is protected from avoidable excitement, pain or suffering. To achieve this, the animal must be effectively restrained and then stunned, rendering it insensible to pain, and finally bled rapidly and profusely to ensure death before recovery could occur. If a stunning method does not cause instantaneous insensibility, the stunning must be non-aversive (ie must not cause fear, pain or other unpleasant feelings) to the animal.
Humane slaughter relies on multiple processes; hauliers, operators, stockmen, slaughtermen and equipment must work to their optimum, and in accordance with legislation, in order to ensure high welfare throughout the slaughter chain.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is responsible for ensuring legislative compliance with animal health and welfare controls in licenced fresh meat premises within Great Britain. The Food Standards Agency employs Official Veterinarians (OVs) and Meat Inspectors to ensure slaughterhouse compliance with meat hygiene, animal welfare and other statutory rules.
OVs take preventative and corrective actions to ensure compliance, these may include verbal or written non-compliance notices and warnings and, when necessary, recommendations for prosecution. If OVs witness animals arriving at a slaughterhouse showing evidence of poor welfare arising on farm or during transport, they will report the incident to the appropriate enforcement body which will take the necessary investigative action.
Major retailers usually require their suppliers to comply with detailed welfare standards specified by the retailers themselves, and employ independent auditors to ensure that their suppliers adhere to these specific welfare standards.
All animals slaughtered in approved slaughterhouses in the UK should have been treated humanely, in accordance with legislation, retailer standards and the welfare policy of individual plants. In addition, there are many farm assurance schemes operating within the UK that lay down animal welfare standards. Producers, hauliers and abattoirs which seek accreditation to a given scheme must comply with these standards. Retailers frequently specify their own welfare standards to which all their suppliers must adhere. Increasing numbers of consumers are concerned about the welfare of farmed livestock. If you are specifically concerned with the welfare of animals at slaughter and killing, it is worth researching retailers' welfare policies and assurance schemes, particularly those geared towards welfare beyond the farm gate.
Details of the majority of farm assurance schemes in the UK can be found online. If a meat product is accredited to a scheme it should be clearly displayed on the product's label. Ask your butcher or food retailer about the accreditation of their suppliers.
Animal welfare is usually included as an aspect of farm assurance schemes, but being accredited to a scheme does not necessarily mean that meat on sale comes from an animal whose welfare beyond the farm gate has been in line with the HSA's recommendations for best practice. It would be advisable to research a specific scheme and find out what rules the scheme lays down for animal transport and slaughter, in order to be fully informed of the treatment of the animal whose meat you are intending to consume.
Adult cattle must be restrained in a stunning pen which is usually a solid-sided metal box with a vertical sliding door at one end to allow the animal to enter. The pen must have a device that restricts the movement of the animal's head to permit accurate stunning. The majority of cattle in the UK are stunned with a captive-bolt pistol. Alternatively cattle are stunned using electricity or stunned and killed using electricity (by applying an electric current to the brain and heart simultaneously).
If using a captive-bolt, the slaughterman stands on a platform, in front or to one side of the pen and shoots the animal in the head between the eyes and the ears in order to accurately target the brain. The pen side then opens and the unconscious animal rolls out of the pen, is shackled by one hind leg, hoisted on to an overhead conveyor and moved to the bleed area. Here the animal is bled by the severance of all major blood vessels supplying the brain with oxygenated blood. This causes rapid death. The animal dies from loss of blood before it makes any recovery from the percussive stun.
In large abattoirs, sheep are often mechanically carried to the stunning area in single file in a V-shaped restrainer conveyor. In small plants they are moved in groups to a pen where they are individually stunned. Sheep may be stunned using either electricity or a captive-bolt pistol. Sheep may also be stunned and killed using electricity; this is usually referred to as a head-to-back stun-kill. They are then shackled, hoisted and bled.
Pigs may be brought to the stunning point in a restrainer conveyor, or be penned in groups and stunned individually using electricity. Carbon dioxide anaesthesia is also used in a number of large abattoirs. Pigs are lowered, preferably in groups, into a chamber containing a minimum concentration of 70% carbon dioxide in air. The pigs then lose consciousness and must remain in the gas mixture until dead. The animals are then shackled by one hind leg, hoisted and bled.
Large scale processing plants slaughter poultry using electrical water baths or gas. For electrical waterbath stunning, poultry are unloaded from their transport containers and hung by both legs onto a moving shackle line, which conveys them to the waterbath. The birds' heads swing into the electrified water in the bath and a stunning current passes from their head, through their body, to their feet in the shackles. This causes the bird to become unconscious. The electrical parameters of the waterbath can be set to either stun the birds or stun and kill them. To ensure all birds die, they are then bled at the neck as soon as possible after they exit the waterbath. For gas killing, poultry are conveyed through a machine which maintains an atmosphere containing proportions of gases that cause the bird to become unconscious and then die. Some machines convey the birds through the gas in their transport containers so there is minimal handling; others unload the birds prior to entry to the controlled atmosphere machine. Commercial smallholders who slaughter poultry on-farm use different methods (see Q 18 & Q 19).
Every year, around the world, millions of farmed fish are slaughtered for human consumption. Science supports the view that fish react to painful stimuli in a similar way to terrestrial livestock. Their welfare should be protected throughout pre-slaughter handling and they should be stunned effectively, causing instantaneous insensibility, before being bled.
Traditional methods of killing fish include asphyxiation out of water, exposure to carbon dioxide, exposure to very low temperatures on an ice bed and bleeding without stunning. These procedures take several minutes to induce insensibility and are not humane.
Electrical and percussive stunning methods for fish are now becoming more common. Current electrical systems include water bath stunning systems, usually based around either an enclosed pipe system, or alternatively a metal de-watering grid followed by a conveyor belt system which passes fish through electrified water to stun them. Research has been directed at determining optimum electrical parameters for stunning different species, as tolerances vary widely. Percussive stunning of fish has been modernised with the evolution of automated percussive flow-through systems which remove the need for human intervention, and retain the fish in water until the point of stunning.
Aquaculture is an expanding industry and there has been considerable research recently to improve welfare at stunning and slaughter. The HSA plays a role in helping industry to apply this research to commercial practice.
The HSA has produced Guidance Notes on Humane Harvesting of Salmon and Trout which provide guidance on the humane handling and killing of salmon and trout. The publication describes the different slaughter methods used, how higher welfare practices can be implemented and meat quality implications of these methods.
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