Credit: We Animals Media
A sheep looking through the railing of a saleyard.

Ritual slaughter in Australia.

A day in any slaughterhouse would be one most people would never forget, whether the animals are stunned first or not.

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated February 27, 2015

In reality, nothing ‘humane’ happens in a slaughterhouse. However, for slaughter to cause the least suffering possible – though it will still cause stress and suffering – it is imperative that animals be stunned unconscious first.

In Australia, stunning is standard and accepted by most religious authorities, however, a disputed legal ‘loophole’ has led to a small number of Australian sheep slaughterhouses killing sheep for ‘ritual slaughter’ without stunning.

In Australia, approximately 32 million sheep and 8 million cattle are killed in slaughterhouses each year for human consumption (both domestic and export). The vast majority of sheep are pre-stunned in accordance with the relevant Australian Standard, and in line with State legislation (for domestic consumption) and federal legislation (for export). It’s important to note, however, that investigation after investigation has made clear that suffering is not only legal in Australian slaughterhouses but sadly, it is also routine – an unavoidable reality of killing animals for food, even in slaughterhouses that stun animals prior to slaughter.

‘Stunning’ animals during slaughter

Australia’s trade in chilled and frozen ‘halal accredited’ meat to the Middle East and other markets is increasing significantly each year. The majority of this meat comes from animals who were stunned before slaughter. Islamic and Jewish leaders in Australia largely accept the stunning of animals.

In most slaughterhouses, sheep are forced along a narrow race to the slaughter area, where electric tongs are placed on either side of their head, and held there for around 2 seconds. When stunned ‘correctly’, a sheep is rendered unconscious and the ‘stun’ will last for around 45 seconds. Industry standards state that the sheep’s throat must then be cut without delay (after the stun) to ensure ‘bleed out’ (insufficient blood/oxygen to maintain life) prior to the time the sheep would normally regain consciousness. Once ‘bled out’, the sheep’s body will then be hoisted onto a processing line to be skinned, gutted, and cut up.

All cattle killed in Australian slaughterhouses are restrained and stunned during slaughter, including those killed in compliance with halal (Islamic) requirements. Cattle are forced down a raceway, and then into a walled box area where they are stunned, usually with a captive bolt or percussion ‘gun’. The unconscious animal is then released onto a platform where slaughter begins.  A small number of cattle killed for the Jewish community (kosher slaughter) are stunned immediately after their throats are cut.

The science related to the duration of consciousness after slaughter

There have been many studies to determine the degree and duration of sensibility, consciousness, pain and suffering involved with unstunned slaughter. The time observed for the interval from throat cut to unconsciousness for sheep has varied in those studies from 2 seconds to 20 seconds. For cattle, consciousness has been recorded up to some 2 minutes. The delay to unconsciousness can be considerably longer if the blood vessels are not successfully cut, or if occlusion occurs — the vessels close before bleeding out is complete.

The most recent substantive review of the literature is the ‘Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare’ on a request from the [EU] Commission. It states in part:

Extract from Section 1.1

‘The animals which are slaughtered have systems for detecting and feeling pain and, as a result of the cut and the blood loss, if not stunned, their welfare will be poor because of pain, fear and other adverse effects. The cuts which are used in order that rapid bleeding occurs involve substantial tissue damage in areas well supplied with pain receptors. The rapid decrease in blood pressure which follows the blood loss is readily detected by the conscious animal and elicits fear and panic. Poor welfare also results when conscious animals inhale blood because of bleeding into the trachea. Without stunning, the time between cutting through the major blood vessels and insensibility, as deduced from behavioural and brain response, is up to 20 seconds in sheep, up to 25 seconds in pigs, up to 2 minutes in cattle, up to 2.5 or more minutes in poultry, and sometimes 15 minutes or more in fish.’

Published in ‘The EFSA Journal’ (2004), 45, 1-29] (emphasis added).

The current law regarding stunning and slaughter

Slaughter standards in commercial slaughterhouses are dictated by the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption (AS 4696 — 2007), which requires the following:

AS4696: Slaughter –

7.09: Animals are slaughtered in a way that prevents unnecessary injury, pain and suffering to them and causes them the least practicable disturbance.

7.10: Before sticking commences animals are stunned in a way that ensures that the animals are unconscious and insensible to pain before sticking occurs and do not regain consciousness or sensibility before dying.

AS4696: Ritual Slaughter –

(1) This provision only applies to animals killed under an approved arrangement that provides for ritual slaughter involving sticking without prior stunning;

(2) An animal that is stuck without first being stunned and is not rendered unconscious as part of its ritual slaughter is stunned without delay after it is stuck to ensure that it is rendered unconscious.

These slaughter practices are enforced by the relevant licensing bodies, including the State Meat Authorities under the relevant State Meat Industry Acts, and by the Department of Agriculture (DA) for the Commonwealth. The Export Control Act and Regulations also require compliance with the Standards for all exported meat products (compliance managed by DA veterinary officers stationed in each export abattoir).

In addition, in 2005 (updated in 2009) the Australian Meat Industry Council (representing slaughterhouse owners) developed and implemented the AMIC ‘Industry Animal Welfare Standards for Livestock Processing Establishments’ which integrate the national Codes of Practice, relevant State and Commonwealth legislation and other commercial requirements.

Those Standards require that ‘Livestock are effectively stunned with appropriate equipment for the species and class of livestock’ (Standard 6, principle 2).

The current situation in regard to exemptions from the Standards

Information was first provided to Animals Australia in mid-2007 indicating that several small slaughterhouses had permission to kill sheep without stunning.

Some slaughterhouses perform fully-conscious kosher and halal slaughter of sheep (not cattle), operating under ‘approved arrangements’ issued by either the federal Department of Agriculture (for export abattoirs) or state meat authorities (for domestic abattoirs).

A former federal Minister for Agriculture called for a review of existing ritual slaughter standards and these exemptions. After considerable delay, a scientific review on the welfare risks of unstunned slaughter was completed in late 2008. There have now been two review papers, both of which confirm the suffering involved in slaughter without stunning — these papers are available here and here.

The unstunned slaughter of some sheep continues in several small Australian (domestic) slaughterhouses using an existing loophole. This meat can be sold in Australia without being labelled as such. It is understood that no exemptions are currently in place for export abattoirs.

You can help spare all animals from slaughterhouses

Even in the most well-managed slaughterhouses, there is not only a risk that stunning will fail and leave an animal exposed to suffering longer, but stress and suffering are inherent. A small percentage of animals may need to be stunned again before losing sensibility, and on rare occasions, animals may even ‘wake up’ during the slaughter process.

The most powerful way to end this cycle of suffering is to choose not to support it. Each animal trapped in our food system is a thinking, feeling individual with a unique personality – and every conscious, kind choice can change their fate. Every time you choose a plant-based meal over an animal-based one, you are helping to spare animals from the terror of a slaughterhouse. Not sure where to start? Order your FREE Veg Starter Kit today…