Farming fears over stunning failures in abbatoir practice

From: Mrs Lucille Nicholson, County Durham.

AS a farmer who rears my livestock to the high welfare standards demanded by both the Government and the public, I am increasingly unhappy about the changes happening in British abattoirs.

In the conventional slaughter process, UK law requires that sheep must be rendered immediately unconscious (stunned) before they are bled. This is done by passing an electric current across the brain for a certain length of time.

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The World Organisation for Animal Health uses all scientific evidence available to define minimum standards for effective stunning as at least 1 amp current for between one and three seconds. The European Food Safety Authority goes further with two seconds as the minimum time. Unfortunately, here in the UK we have not adopted these specific standards for conventional slaughter, merely a requirement to “adequately stun to insensibility”. This is where the problem lies.

A short film was shown to Parliament in 2009 on halal slaughter. Made by Eblex (the beef and lamb industry’s representative body funded by a compulsory levy on both farmers and meat processors), it claims the majority of UK halal meat is stunned. When I first saw the DVD a few months ago, it showed very clearly a big commercial abattoir “stunning” the sheep at one amp for only 0.2 to 0.3 seconds – far below the internationally recommended minimum times.

Yet two years later, in a 2011 report commissioned by Eblex, it states equally clearly that a minimum duration of at least two seconds is necessary to ensure insensibility in sheep.

The senior official for animal welfare at Defra confirmed to me that this very short time seriously risks the sheep being paralysed but still conscious when its throat is cut. Such immobilisation by electric shock is absolutely illegal under UK law.

This “halal approved system” is increasingly used by big mainstream abattoirs in order to reduce their costs and to be able to sell to both mainstream and halal markets. However, we do not have to abandon our own standards in the mistaken belief that by doing so we will win more business.

New Zealand’s 2010 code of practice for commercial slaughter has a legally enforceable standard of 1 amp minimum applied for between one and three seconds – failure to meet this is punishable by fines or imprisonment. And New Zealand has built large export businesses to halal markets in the Middle East without compromising their own laws on stunning.

This lack of a minimum standard for the time and amperage needed to guarantee unconsciousness and the growth in non-stun practice is totally unacceptable to me as a farmer and a consumer. It makes a mockery of the mountain of regulation that governs animal welfare in the UK.

Without a clear law on this, we are moving towards a situation that already exists in France, where almost 100 per cent of lambs, 43 per cent of calves and 30 per cent of cattle are now killed without stunning – farmers there are finding it increasingly difficult to get their animals slaughtered humanely.

We have spent the last 100 years legislating to improve abattoir conditions in order to make the slaughter of animals as humane as possible. If we fail to legally enforce a minimum standard, then our indifference to cruelty is what will come to define us as a nation.