Does Humane Slaughter Exist?
For most people, slaughterhouses are places of mystery. From a young age we are told that they are places where great care is taken to make sure animals are slaughtered ‘humanely’ and without pain.
But how many of us have ever questioned the stories we were told? How many people really know what goes on behind the slaughterhouse walls? The truth may not be what you expect.
When Stunning Fails
One of the main beliefs people have about slaughterhouses is that all animals are killed without pain, but this is a common misconception.
Many countries have a legal requirement that animals are stunned before slaughter – stunning is when animals are made unconscious before being slaughtered – but not all stunning is effective and some stunning methods cause pain to the animals.
The most common methods of stunning animals in the UK are gas, electric baths, and captive bolt pistol. A captive bolt pistol is a gun which fires a metal bolt into an animal’s brain. This stunning method is commonly used on larger animals like cows and sheep.
A similar method of stunning is also used for fish like salmon who receive a blow to the head with a ‘percussive stunner’, which is a stunning machine that clubs them. But this stunning method is not always effective and sometimes workers will instead hold the fish down and beat them over the head using a baton in an attempt to stun them.
In 2021, Animal Equality released an investigation inside a salmon slaughterhouse in Scotland where we found the stun-kill machine being used was not working effectively. Many salmon had their gills cut while they were still conscious which caused them to be in agony for up to several minutes. Others received multiple blows to the head.
The slaughterhouse, which was operated by The Scottish Salmon Company, was linked to major UK supermarkets Waitrose and Co-op at the time.
Gas is another form of stunning which is commonly used to stun pigs. The pigs are loaded into a gas chamber and exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide does not cause the pigs to become unconscious immediately and high concentrations of the gas can cause them significant pain and distress. Pigs have been shown in studies to gasp for air, squeal and struggle to escape for up to a minute before losing consciousness. A UK Government report says: “There are longstanding concerns about the negative welfare impacts of high concentration CO2 stunning systems for pigs.”
After the pigs fall unconscious, a slaughterhouse worker slits their throats and the pigs bleed out until they die.
Electric baths are sometimes used for birds like chickens, who are painfully hung upside down by their legs and carried towards a bath containing electrified water. When the chicken’s head makes contact with the water, they’re electrocuted and become unconscious. The chickens are then carried towards a metal blade which slits their throats.
However, this process is also not guaranteed to work. There can be issues with the electrical current, meaning the animals are not shocked strongly enough to render them unconscious. Others receive a ‘pre-stun’ shock, meaning they receive a painful electric shock while still conscious. Some chickens may not make contact with the water at all and are slaughtered while fully conscious.
A number of Animal Equality’s investigations globally have also revealed deliberate cruelty and abuse to animals in their last moments of life. In 2022, Animal Equality released footage captured inside over 30 slaughterhouses across Mexico where investigators found workers kicking and hitting animals and shocking them with electrical devices, as well as pigs being killed while fully conscious.
In Italy, we documented pigs being forced out of trucks into a slaughterhouse using sticks, electrified rods and physical violence. On many occasions, the pigs were forced to exit the trucks without ramps and many fell onto the concrete floor. Some pigs arrived at the slaughterhouse already dead.
In one case, a very young piglet was hit repeatedly by a slaughterhouse worker and began to spasm on the ground. The worker then took him by the leg and threw him against a concrete wall. His body was then thrown away. All of this happened in front of one of the owners of the slaughterhouse.
When people think about slaughterhouses, they may think about what is happening there, but rarely think about who is there.
In 2021, Animal Equality released images from a shocking investigation into the slaughter of pregnant cows in a Brazilian abattoir. Our investigator filmed distressing scenes including a pregnant cow being slaughtered while her unborn calf struggled inside of her, slowly being deprived of oxygen while their mother bled out.
We also found live calves being cut from their mothers’ bodies and discarded on the slaughterhouse floor. This practice isn’t restricted to Brazil. Pregnant cows are also slaughtered in the UK and in countries around the world.
Calves are not the only young animals in slaughterhouses. Chickens have been selectively bred over generations to grow incredibly quickly, to the point where they’re now sent to slaughter at just a few weeks’ old.
Authorities Fail To Intervene
In 2019, Animal Equality released shocking footage filmed inside a sheep slaughterhouse in Wrexham, North Wales.
The footage showed the conveyor system inside the slaughterhouse wasn’t working correctly. It was being used to carry sheep along the slaughter line towards their deaths, but many sheep became stuck and fell through gaps in the machinery.
The animals were left to panic until workers tried to wrestle the sheep out of the machine using brute force. When this didn’t work, the workers instead shot and decapitated the sheep where they were.
Their blood drained onto the floor and their body parts were discarded in full view of other sheep who were still waiting in the line, about to be slaughtered.
Much of this suffering took place in front of an official Food Standards Agency inspector, but the inspector failed to intervene. When he was asked if he was happy with what he saw, the inspector replied “spot on”.
And in 2016, Animal Equality reported on a slaughterhouse in Germany where a stunning device had been broken for two years. As a result, an estimated 25% of the animals slaughtered there, including pigs and cows, were slaughtered while fully conscious.
Despite regular checks by several authorities, in which the failures of the stunning system in the affected period were officially documented, the slaughterhouse was allowed to kill animals that had not been stunned for two years without hindrance.
Some local authorities complained about the situation, but only threatened to close the slaughterhouse two years after it became known.
What Needs To Change
We can all make a difference for animals by leaving them off our plate. Ultimately, slaughter is a violent act and will never be cruelty-free. Every time we choose a plant-based meal, we are sparing an animal from being confined on a factory farm and being slaughtered.
Animal Equality is also fighting for stronger oversight in slaughterhouses, such as the introduction of CCTV in fish slaughterhouses with the footage made publicly available for scrutiny. As long as practices in slaughterhouses remain hidden, animals will be vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
Our team of investigators are in the field conducting investigations into the meat industry, but we need you in order to show the world what they find and to achieve concrete change for animals.
Please support our investigators by making a donation today.