Author: Professor Joe M. Regenstein
The Jewish and Muslim communities have a set of dietary laws that control the food they eat. These are part of a larger set of laws that impact almost every aspect of their daily lives.
In both communities animal welfare is an integral component of these laws, and both groups use a neck cut to make the animal unconscious. Both groups do not slaughter pigs.
Religious slaughter in Europe
The religious slaughter of animals is challenging because the process is slower; it requires more effort by the slaughterhouse and the slaughterman; it requires more attention to animal handling details; and it needs specialized equipment that is more costly, especially for higher line speeds. The benefits include that the animal is killed by a person with religious training who cares about the animal using a razor sharp knife free of nicks. This may actually be less painful than other slaughter methods.
Yet with the increased interest in animal welfare, religious slaughter of animals has been attacked in many Western countries where it is assumed often with rather weak scientific data that secular slaughter methods are presumed to be more humane.
One example of the pressure occurred in Holland. Last year, the lower house of Parliament passed a bill banning un-stunned slaughter unless it can be proven equal to secular slaughter although no procedure for how such a determination might be made was provided. The upper house rejected the bill because it was felt to violate religious freedom. Recently a covenant was signed between the government and the Jewish and Muslim communities that called for an intervention after 40 seconds if the animal is not unconscious.
In Europe there are efforts to reject meat over which a Muslim has said “G-d is great,” including the Church of England, despite the fact that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for G-d.
The vocabulary used in discussing these issues may have a significant impact on how the consumer understands the issues and how the scientists frame the research needs. Thus, calling the process “ritual” slaughter gives a different tone to the process than “religious” slaughter. The author suggests the use of “The Prophetic Method of Slaughter” for halal and “The Jewish Religious Slaughter of Animals” for kosher.
The author has carefully avoided the terms “stunned” and “unstunned.” The goal for all slaughter is to humanely make animals unconscious. Religious slaughter does so using a trained religious person who respectfully slaughters the animal, while the other methods involving stunning have been described as “cracking the skull” or “electrocuting” the animal. Those do not sound anywhere as reverential as “carefully hand-slaughtered with respect for the animals.” So words do matter.
There are also a few technical terms to define. For example, unconsciousness occurs when an animal generally cannot maintain posture and does not feel pain. This is the goal of the initial step of the slaughter process.
The second step in the process is waiting for the animal to become insensible. When all of the voluntary head reflexes are absent, it is then appropriate to begin further processing the animal, which is an ethical requirement for both religious and secular slaughter. On the other hand, consumers honor traditional on-farm slaughter and hunting, both of which have issues with getting to unconsciousness.
Quality of death is key
The key issue is always the quality of the death. If the animal is calmly expiring and shows no signs of stress, the time may be secondary. If the animal is struggling, then time is a major concern.
As in conventional slaughter, there are many different methods of religious slaughter. This is often not reported.
There are clearly bad slaughter systems, and one has to suspect that some of the research on religious slaughter was done on a bad system. These need to be fixed. In addition, several details of the actual slaughter and the animal handling system used need to be reported. A recent series of papers by Gibson et al. is a clear example of this lack of congruence. The use of a 10-inch, machine-sharpened knife is totally irrelevant to the use of a razor-sharp nick-free 14-inch religious slaughter knife. Yet the paper is critical of religious slaughter. These papers have a large number of other scientific and ethical problems, so they are far from the definitive work they claim to be.
On the other hand, the animal welfare of religious slaughter needs to be improved consistent with and respectful of all religious rules. The religious community needs to proactively take on this responsibility with help from the scientific community. The best religious slaughter systems available need to be studied when they are working properly to determine the potential of religious slaughter.
In a good religious slaughter system, Dr. Temple Grandin has observed that the average time to unconsciousness for cattle (which is the slowest animal to become unconscious) is 17 seconds, and the longest time for a good slaughter was 33 seconds. Behavioral observations should also indicate that the animal during this period is not struggling. If so an intervention if needed should be done around 40 seconds.
The impact of the actual religious slaughter (for example, the neck cut) needs to be separated from several extremely important issues that are not “religious requirements” but are good practices.
These confound the research results, such as the people, the facility, the equipment and the stress state of the animals presented for slaughter – all of which need to be optimized.
The goal is that all slaughter plants are always operating using best practices.
Joe M. Regenstein is professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University and a noted author on religious slaughter in the United States.