There are legislative attempts around the world to require stunning of animals prior to religious slaughter. I do not get involved in the politics of this issue, but the following discussion may help clarify where there are problem areas.
Over the past 30 years I have worked closely with the kosher industry to ensure that religious slaughter is performed in as humane a manner as possible. The issue of stunning, in my view, is not the most important issue when it comes to ensuring the welfare of animals before they are slaughtered. But it is critical to recognize that performing kosher slaughter with an acceptable level of welfare does require more attention to the procedure’s details than slaughter in which the animal is stunned.
There are two animal welfare issues when slaughter is performed without stunning. They are the method used to restrain the animal and the throat cut itself.
These issues are particularly relevant when it comes to cattle. Poultry can be slaughtered easily with a sharp knife, and there is no need for stunning. Sheep are smaller than cattle and easier to restrain and kill quickly. A lamb that is slaughtered with a sharp knife out on the farm, even without stunning, probably has better welfare than a lamb that has to ride on a truck to a slaughter plant. Due to anatomical differences in the blood vessels in the neck, cattle take twice as long as sheep to lose consciousness after the cut, and their size makes them difficult to restrain.
Some of the worst animal welfare problems in the kosher industry are the stressful methods of restraint that are still being used in some slaughterhouses. In the United States, there are still some kosher plants that hoist conscious animals by one rear leg. Fortunately, most of the large American kosher plants have stopped using this traumatic method.
In South American kosher slaughterhouses, however, the handling practices are often atrocious. The live cattle are shackled and dragged and then held down by several people. The methods of restraint are so bad that it is impossible to determine how the animal is reacting to the throat cut. Large amounts of kosher beef are imported into this country from plants that are using these barbaric methods of restraint.
Even when a plant has decent restraint equipment to hold the animal in a more comfortable position, it needs to be operated correctly. This requires management that is committed to good animal treatment.
I have observed that when kosher slaughter of cattle is done well, there is almost no reaction from the animal when the throat is cut. Flicking my hand near the animal’s face caused a bigger reaction. When the cut is done well, 90% or more of the cattle will collapse and become unconscious within 30 seconds.
There are new scientific studies that show there are welfare concerns when animals are slaughtered without stunning. New Zealand researchers conducted a study on calves with a new EEG brain wave method that indicated that the knife cut caused pain. In this study, however, they used a machine-sharpened knife that may have been too short. A knife that is too short will cause gouging of the wound. The results of this study clearly show that the knife they used was not acceptable. To this date, a similar study has not been done with the special long kosher knife.
Another study has shown that one of the most difficult welfare problems to solve is aspiration (inhaling) of blood into the lungs after the cut. Cattle continue to breathe after the throat is cut. There is much variation in the percentage of animals that aspirate blood. It may be possible to improve methods and reduce this problem. Aspiration of blood is an issue that must be fixed to have an acceptable level of welfare. It will require both research and practical experimentation with technique to solve this problem.
Finally, there needs to be accountability to ensure that both restraint and slaughter are done correctly. Over the years, I have become disgusted by the frequency with which procedures in a given plant seem perfect when I am visiting, but as soon as I have left an undercover video surfaces that reveals bad practices. This has happened in both conventional and religious slaughter plants.
To prevent this problem, I am a big advocate of video auditing over the Internet. An outside auditing company can view video from a plant and evaluate its practices using an objective scoring system. Some of the variables that can be measured are electric prod use, percentage of cattle vocalizing (bellowing) and acts of abuse. Video auditing is now being used in many large, conventional slaughter plants. Unfortunately, all kosher plants have resisted video auditing.
Kosher slaughter of cattle requires special care. While some kosher plants have done well, and many others are improving, too often kosher plants have been very badly managed compared to many of the big conventional plants.
In order to maximize animal welfare, kosher slaughterhouses need to take the following steps: 1) eliminate stressful cruel methods of restraint such as dragging, shackling and hoisting or leg clamping; 2) keep animals calm before slaughter, since an agitated animal is more difficult to kill and takes longer to become unconscious; 3) perform the cut immediately after an animal’s head is restrained; 4) use restraining devices that hold animals in a comfortable upright position; 5) perform collapse scoring to keep track of the proportion of animals that quickly lose consciousness; 6) use video auditing by an outside firm, and practice transparency by streaming the video to a webpage so that the public can view it.
Adhering to these practices would enhance animal welfare, and all these steps could be implemented without transgressing the requirements of religious law. The kosher industry has an opportunity to show the world that it is doing things the right way.
Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a designer of livestock handling facilities. She is the author of “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).