Ritual slaughter: what’s the beef?

Ritual Slaughter

By LSS member Dr. Peter Bowen-Walker

What is ritual slaughter?

Ritual slaughter is the killing of animals for food in a way which is informed and guided by religious or cultural requirements.

It is not strictly the same as an animal sacrifice, because after ritual slaughter the animal is used as food and not simply as an offering. However in the past these two practices have often been interlinked.

How did it start and for what purpose?

Ritual slaughter is a very ancient practice and there are images of such practices on Egyptian tombs and temple walls from three millennia ago. It has been suggested that the practice arose even earlier than this, corresponding to a time when humanity was moving from hunting and gathering to farming and husbandry. It is suggested that at this pivotal point rituals associated with increasing the chance of a successful hunt were not abandoned, but were adapted and modified to suit the new mode of appropriating food – namely the slaughter of domestic livestock following what was a novel and lengthy association with the animals. Humans began farming sometime around ten thousand years ago and ritual slaughter could plausibly extend back to that transitional time.

The origins are therefore pagan and certainly predate the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. Notwithstanding this, it’s probably fair to hypothesise that the practice was almost certainly carried out from a sense of genuine respect for the animal (either as an “opponent” originally, or a well regarded bounty latterly) and possibly with reverence for the animistic powers or forces which may have been perceived to be instrumental in the provision of nutrition and resources and which are still seen today in some indigenous tribal belief systems. I would suggest such gracious sentiments remain in place today and are visible in the simple prayers said by many religious people before they eat.

What happens today?

Presently, ritual slaughter is practised most visibly by Jewish and Muslim religio-cultural groups and is called Shechitah and Zabiha (or Dhabiha) respectively, although in the past Greek Orthodox Christians have also observed the practice. Some strains of Judaism and Islam today have very strict customs relating to what food is permissible, how it should be killed and how it should be prepared.

In the interests of good taste (no pun intended) I will refrain from going into detail concerning the actual method of killing the animal or bird in question other than to point out that the animal must be both healthy and viable when it is killed by incising the major blood vessels in the neck. Clearly this requirement is a sensible precaution against parasite and disease transmission, and since ritual slaughter extends back thousands of years this practice may have spared a great many people from debilitating illness and an early death.

Are there alternative religious views on ritual slaughter?


Interestingly, the Hindu religion recognises two forms of ritually processed meat. Jhatka meat is meat from an animal which has been killed by a single strike of a sword or axe to sever the head and is permitted for consumption, whilst Kutha meat is the slow slaughter of animals (akin to the Shechitah and Zabiha method) and is forbidden.

Similarly, many Sikhs are advised that only Jhatka meat is acceptable; the slow killing process being forbidden in their Khalsa Code of Conduct; the reason being it is held that Khalsa meat is believed to be oppressive and inhumane.

(Many Hindus and Sikhs accept the captive-bolt method of killing as being the same as a single blow to the head, so much of the meat produced in UK abattoirs is acceptable to them).

Why does ritual slaughter attract so much criticism and opposition today?

I hope what I have conveyed so far is a fair picture of this religio-cultural practice. Failing that, I hope I have erred on the positive and generous side in order to be permitted the leeway to paint the other side of the picture now.

Many practitioners of religious slaughter today opine that animals which are rendered insensitive by prior stunning before the ritual killing are unsuitable and can therefore not be consumed as Kosher or Halal food (meaning “approved”).

It is this last point which rightly causes most concern and indeed outright lack of approval by many outside the communities concerned.

The rationale adopted by the religious authorities that are opposed to prior-stunning is that prior-stunning causes damage to the nervous system of the animal (or may even kill it) before it can be ritually killed. Since prior-stunning damages the otherwise healthy animal it is perceived as no longer viable and healthy at the time of actual slaughter. Indeed, if it dies before being ritually slaughtered, the animal is technically viewed as carrion which is expressly forbidden as a source of food for many Muslims.

The preceding paragraph is a generalisation and some meat which is ritually slaughtered is stunned prior to being killed – but not all animals are – please refer to the data later in this article.

In fairness to both Jewish and Muslim approaches to ritual slaughter, it is reported from their scholars that the originators of the ritual practice were very concerned about animal welfare and minimising animal suffering. Indeed, it was only trained approved practitioners over a certain age (which correlates with strength presumably) and with approved sharpened instruments employing a particular methodology who were permitted to carry out the task.

Without this one very significant difference (no prior stunning before slaughter) it would be difficult to draw any distinction between modern methods of slaughter and the more ancient ritual methodologies – particularly in relation to the all important point of avoiding unnecessary animal suffering.

How many animals are ritually slaughtered in the UK without prior stunning?

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) published figures in 2012 based on a survey of slaughterhouses in September 2011:

A total of 43,772 cattle / calves were slaughtered at 194 establishments, of which:

1,314 (3%) were slaughtered by the Shechitah method at four establishments, with 10% of these stunned immediately after bleeding.

1,727 (4%) were slaughtered by the Halal method at 16 establishments. 84% of these were stunned before slaughter, and less than 1% stunned after bleeding.

(Additional data is also available for sheep, goats and poultry.)

Do animals suffer pain and distress if they are not stunned prior to being ritually slaughtered?

In order to answer this question I would need an entire blog and not a few paragraphs!

The claim made by many who support ritual slaughter (without prior stunning) is that animals lose consciousness almost immediately at the time they are slaughtered.

Making a determination of the time taken before loss of consciousness is of course only one approach to measuring the aversive sensations and feelings associated with handling before slaughter, and during the act which leads to unavoidable tissue damage. Pain, stress, distress, fear and suffering are all ways in which the bodies and minds of animals respond to life-threatening stimuli. Unfortunately, some or all these phenomena are difficult to measure objectively so I will limit my comments to indicators which can be more objectively studied.

Unfortunately (for the animals) the scientific and veterinary studies do not support the conclusion that animals lose consciousness almost immediately at the time they are slaughtered.

One literature review stated it assumed that in mammals such as men, monkeys, dogs and rats consciousness is lost if 30-40% of the total blood volume is lost or if blood pressure drops to below values between 35 and 50 mmHg. These values are slightly more generous than some of the modern medical estimations which indicate a 50% loss of blood is required for a human to enter an irreversible comatose state.

Even working on the more easily achieved lower benchmark data, studies have shown that it can take cattle anything up to three minutes to lose consciousness – the average figure being somewhere between 60-90 seconds from the time of the first cut. Other studies have indicated the time frame for sheep and poultry is shorter.

What is certain however is that blood pressure and blood volume loss cannot be taken as immediate and rapid, and significant variations exist both within the same species and different species.

So in answer to the original question – animals do experience the slaughter process for somewhere between 5-90 seconds but times of up to 5 minutes have been recorded on rare occasions in cattle.

Disturbingly, blood is found in the voice boxes of all animals when they are slaughtered, and in 30-60% (I have simplified the figures) blood was found deeper in the respiratory tracts of animals which had been ritually slaughtered. This would potentially cause the animals to suffer irritation and discomfort in their respiratory tracts which only non-stunned animals would of course experience.

The UK Farm Animal Welfare Council concluded in their Report on the welfare of livestock when slaughtered by religious methods (1995) that “up to date scientific evidence available and our own observations leave no doubt in our minds that religious methods of slaughter, even when carried out under ideal conditions, must result in a degree of pain, suffering and distress which does not occur in the properly stunned animal”.

Their 2003 report went further at paragraph 201, stating, “Council considers that slaughter without pre-stunning is unacceptable and that the Government should repeal the current exemption.”

The Report on good and adverse practices – Animal welfare concerns in relation to slaughter practices from the viewpoint of veterinary sciences DIALREL 2010 says: “It can be stated with high probability that animals feel pain during and after the throat cut without prior stunning. This applies even to a good cut performed by a skilled operator, because substantial tissue damage is inflicted to areas well supplied with nociceptors [pain receptors] and subsequent perception of pain is not exclusively related to the quality of the cut.”

The same report points out that “Electrical stunning is a humane method of rendering an animal instantaneously unconscious and with timely and effective bleeding unconsciousness and insensibility will last until death supervenes by bleeding.”

The Humane Slaughter Association (of which I confess I am a member) state that “all animals should be effectively stunned prior to being bled, because this precludes the possibility of suffering.”

The Federation of Veterinarians of Europe states that it “is of the opinion that from an animal welfare point of view, and out of respect for an animal as a sentient being, the practice of slaughtering animals without prior stunning is unacceptable under any circumstances…”

So why is ritual slaughter without prior stunning carried out today in the UK despite it causing unnecessary suffering to animals?

It is a requirement in both UK and EU law that animals must be rendered insensitive before slaughter (Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995, SI 1995/731, reg. 9(c)). Notwithstanding this, exemptions are granted for the Jewish and Muslim methods of slaughter by regulation 21, regulation 22, Schedule 12, and by Directive 93/119/EC (now repealed and replaced by Council Regulation 1099/2009).

In response to public pressure the government later amended the 1995 regulations in 1999 and imposed further requirements on religious slaughter, providing that it can only be carried out at a licensed slaughterhouse with access to a veterinary surgeon and stunning equipment if problems should arise.

Council Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing states at regulation 18:

Since Community provisions applicable to religious slaughter have been transposed differently depending on national contexts and considering that national rules take into account dimensions that go beyond the purpose of this Regulation, it is important that derogation from stunning animals prior to slaughter should be maintained, leaving, however, a certain level of subsidiarity to each Member State. As a consequence, this Regulation respects the freedom of religion and the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance, as enshrined in Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

Title II of TFEU lists some key principles the Union should respect.  Article 13 introduced with the Lisbon Treaty states:

In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.

According to the European Commission website, “This puts animal welfare on equal footing with other key principles mentioned in the same title i.e. promote gender equality, guarantee social protection, protect human health, combat discrimination, promote sustainable development, ensure consumer protection, protect personal data.”

So there it is: despite animals being sentient and despite all the evidence suggesting that slaughter without prior stunning leads to unnecessary pain and suffering – and even though animal welfare is meant to be treated as seriously as gender equality and non-discrimination – it is clearly not the case in practice.

Do all EU countries permit ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning?

No. Several EU and western European countries (Sweden, Latvia, Finland) have banned slaughter without prior stunning and some are currently in the process of doing so. A few have introduced a compromise position in which the animals must be stunned immediately after the cut is made to minimise pain and suffering (e.g. Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Slovakia).

A personal perspective on the subject.

The second world war exacted a terrible toll on the conscience of western Europe. Conduct of unimaginable brutality was unleashed on all manner of people, in particular the Jewish people. It is no wonder the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contained Article 18 stating:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

And later at Article 27:

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

As an atheist and secularist, it is my opinion that religion should adapt and evolve in the face of scientific and societal advancement. Where it does not, the state should be entitled to interfere in a proportionate way to ensure that no unnecessary suffering is caused to any “sentient being” irrespective of how humble it is.

I do not agree with the exemption provided by the EU which facilitates the continuation of pain and unnecessary distress to animals at the time of slaughter. Exempting prior-stunning of ritually slaughtered animals flies in the face of the scientific and veterinary evidence and contradicts the EU’s own key principles.

The issue is how to fully enable and permit people from certain religious traditions to go about their lawful business and to lead full, healthy and happy lives with minimal state interference – but at the same time, to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals.

At the same time it is important for governments and legislators – and religious communities – to realise that ritual slaughter of animals without prior-stunning is opposed by large numbers of people (I would even suggest the majority) and even other religious communities.  Simply to provide an exemption for one community, particularly in the absence of the requirement for clearly labelled food – creates as much concern and offence (and much more actual harm) as would a repeal of the exemptions.

What I would like to see

1. Legislation repealed so that exemptions to the requirement that animals should be stunned prior to slaughtering are ended. This would be in line with the scientific and veterinary evidence on animal welfare. I respectfully suggest it would also be in accordance with the prevailing opinion of the EU and UK populations.

2. Until such time as legal exemptions are removed, it is critical that food produced without prior stunning of the animal is clearly labelled as such. The power of the free market and the additional awareness-raising effect may advance the argument – but if nothing else it will increase the transparency of the EU and go some way to address the current accusation of there being an EU democratic deficiency!  Sweden recently called for such a measure after they expressed concerns the exemption to prior stunning was being over-used in some member states.

3. Finally (and perhaps naively) I believe that ritual slaughter was originally intended (at least within the Abrahamic traditions) to provide a humane and hygienic way of producing meat. Consequently a move to require prior-stunning may not in fact be a betrayal of these original aims and values.

As Jeremy Bentham stated in his seminal work in 1789 An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, the wellbeing of animals is no less important than that of human beings, and must be taken into account because as he so eloquently put it: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Dr Peter Bowen-Walker is a biological scientist, lecturer and a part-time law student with an interest in animal welfare, habitat protection and environmental law

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

Image credit above: National Secular Society

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