Solutions for inhumane slaughterhouse practices

| September 30, 2013 | 0 Comments
Continuous conveyor of chickens at a slaughterhouse.

Continuous conveyor of chickens at a slaughterhouse.

The XL Foods E. coli outbreak in the fall of 2012 was a vivid reminder for many Canadians of the reality and risks of industrial slaughter. Accompanying the daily news updates on the outbreak — in total, there were 18 confirmed cases — were glimpses into the scope and speed of modern slaughter plants.
XL Foods processed approximately 3,800 head of cattle a day. The plant accounted for 35 percent of the country’s beef production. The union representing plant workers said one of the key barriers to food safety was line speed: the lines were too fast, and there was too much pressure to keep them moving at all costs. In the words of Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour: “There is a culture in that plant that puts priority on quantity over quality, and until that changes, we’re going to continue to struggle.”

Horse feedlot in Alberta where thousands of horses are held before slaughter for their meat. Canadian abattoirs killed 82,000 horses in 2012.

Horse feedlot in Alberta where thousands of horses are held before slaughter for their meat. Canadian abattoirs killed 82,000 horses in 2012.

Somewhere in that struggle are live animals, moving through a fast, highly mechanized process that places a premium on efficiency and productivity. If there are concerns about the safety of their carcasses, logic suggests their welfare might have been compromised before slaughter, despite legislation mandating that it be humane.
Canada first implemented laws governing slaughter in 1960. This followed the lead taken by the U.S. which, responding to intense public pressure, enacted its Humane Slaughter Act in 1958. Today in Canada, most large commercial slaughterhouses are regulated either federally through the Meat Inspection Act, or provincially through similar legislation. Provincial facilities may sell meat only in the province in which they operate.
In addition, Canada has voluntary, industry-driven codes of practice for farm animal welfare; however, these cover only on-farm euthanasia, not commercial slaughter.
The result is a bit of a regulatory hodge-podge and overall lack of consistency that tends to weaken legislative credibility and make the laws more difficult to enforce. In fact, Canada’s National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council states in a recent report: “Because of the mixture of federal and provincial regulations for humane slaughter, Canada lacks a harmonized standard in this important area.” The report further points out: “In some jurisdictions, there is a third category of plants, generally small plants with local clientele, that fall under no federal or provincial slaughter regulations.”
Inspection of the majority of these plants falls to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). As of March 2012, there were 3,534 CFIA inspectors overseeing 110 federally registered slaughter plants across the country; XL Foods alone had 40 inspectors and six vets, working in two shifts. All in all, this is a relatively small number of people overseeing the slaughter of very large numbers of animals, and their focus on food safety tends to take priority over efforts to keep the process humane.
Commercial slaughter methods vary from one animal to another. Cows are stunned using a captive-bolt gun, which fires a metal rod into the skull and retracts it again. Rendered unconscious, the animal is hoisted up by a back leg, its throat is cut and, with heart still pumping, it bleeds out, or is exsanguinated. The animal then proceeds through an assembly line of workers, each of whom performs a different task — from removing skin and limbs to evisceration.
Pigs are usually stunned using electricity or carbon dioxide, the latter administered by herding the animals in groups into a CO2 chamber that then pushes them out unconscious on the other side. They are then hung and bled similarly to cows, with a key difference being that pigs also enter a scalding tank to remove their hair. While CO2 is touted as a more humane method of slaughter, research from animal scientists on the National Farm Animal Care Council finds that “Pigs at all ages appear to find inhalation of this gas highly aversive: escape and retreat attempts, gasping, head shaking and vocalizations occur frequently prior to loss of consciousness.”
Chicken slaughter is especially contentious from a welfare standpoint, as the electrical bath typically used to stun the birds is often ineffective due either to improper levels of electricity or to the birds’ squirming and lifting their heads, thereby missing the bath altogether. Consequently, they are fully conscious when their throats are cut. This is in addition to the pain endured while shackled upside down on the slaughter line.
While the EU uses slaughter methods similar to Canada, it has made significant strides in areas where Canada is lacking.
One is that EU slaughterhouse workers must earn a certificate of competence, for which they must write an exam. As well, every slaughter facility must appoint a designated Animal Welfare Officer to ensure compliance with appropriate regulations.
Especially significant is the EU’s use of closed-circuit TV (CCTV) in slaughterhouses — a trend that has been strongly supported by retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Tesco, and J. Sainsbury. As of 2011, just under 20 percent of red-meat slaughterhouses were using CCTV cameras.
EU member states are also taking steps individually in support of more humane slaughter. Danish authorities, for instance, make regular unannounced slaughterhouse inspections. Sweden prohibits ritual slaughter — that is, highly controversial slaughter without stunning (whereby the animal’s throat is cut while fully conscious) Many countries, including Canada and the U.S., allow the exemption of stunning on religious grounds. Increasingly, evidence is surfacing — eye-witness accounts from meat inspectors, for example — that animals slaughtered without first being stunned endure extreme suffering.
The EU also is leading the development of innovative slaughter processes such as those used to detect boar taint on uncastrated pigs. Boar taint is a strong odour and flavour in a small percentage of males that can make pork unmarketable. For many countries, the solution has been to castrate the animal, usually without anesthetic. However, with the EU’s 2018 deadline for ending castration, new sensory and chemical methods are being developed to detect boar taint at slaughter time, enabling the plant to redirect the meat while eliminating the need for painful castration.
Like Canada, however, the EU also faces quality-control issues around slaughter, as made evident by the recent horse meat scandal. The ever-expanding creep of the contamination in early 2013 not only drove home the magnitude of the meat industry, but also raised serious questions around the scruples of those within it. Perhaps not surprisingly, amidst fraudulent labelling and mounting food safety concerns, little was said about animal welfare.

Edana Brown is a director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

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Edana Brown is a director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.  Free

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