PART FOUR: CATTLE SLAUGHTER
The majority of cattle are stunned with the captive bolt
pistol. The Humane Slaughter Association make it clear that,
"whilst it may appear that captive-bolt stunning is a straightforward
procedure, great care must be taken in its operation, as both
operator error and equipment failure will severely compromise
animal welfare." (24)
Problems associated with the captive bolt pistol
In order for a captive bolt stun to render an animal unconscious,
stunners need to be well maintained and the correct cartridge
strengths need to be used. Failure to do this, or to position
the pistol accurately, means that the animal will have to
endure the pain of being shot in the head without losing consciousness
- and will then have to be shot again or be knifed whilst
In 1990, scientists visited 27 abattoirs and looked at almost
2,000 cattle being stunned. They found that 6.6 per cent of
cattle were "less than effectively stunned". (25)
The Scientific Veterinary Committee of the European Commission
express similar concerns in their 1996 report. They say that,
"...in 5 to 10% of cattle captive bolt stunning is not applied
correctly. Inadequate facilities for the presentation of heads
of animals to the operators is thought to be the major cause
of this problem. Animals may remain conscious or regain consciousness
very soon either due to inappropriate shooting position or
cartridge." (17) In the UK, this means that up to 230,000
cattle each year are not being correctly stunned.
This level of suffering is internationally accepted. In the
USA, a training video entitled, "Good Animal Handling for
Beef Processors" and funded by the McDonald's Corporation
and the American Meat Institute Foundation states, "Excellent
stunning is achieved when 99 per cent or more of the animals
are rendered insensible with one shot. An acceptable level
is rendering more than 95 per cent of the cattle in one shot.
If more than 5 per cent of the cattle don't reach insensibility
after one shot, your plant should re-evaluate its stunning
process and possibly training be provided to the stunning
operator." So, according to McDonalds, it is acceptable to
mis-stun 1 in 20 cattle. (26)
USA-based researcher Temple Grandin visited 11 cattle slaughterhouses
and found that only 4 were able to render 95% of cattle insensible
with a single shot from a captive-bolt stunner. (8)
Restunning cattle with the captive bolt is not easy. The
Humane Slaughter Association explain, "When a captive-bolt
enters the skull it causes massive damage and swelling around
the wound; the swelling will absorb most of the impact of
a second shot and this will mean the shock wave is not as
effectively transmitted to the brain." (24)
Cattle head restraint
In order to facilitate stunning accuracy, UK legislation
states that cattle cannot be stunned unless they are ,"confined
in a stunning pen which is in good working order" or the animal's
head is, "securely fastened in such a position as to enable
it to be stunned without the infliction of avoidable excitement,
pain or suffering". (5)
An inherent problem lies behind these reassuring words. If
a stunning box does not fully restrain the head then accurate
stunning will be more difficult to achieve but it does fully
restrain the head then the animal will become distressed.
Ewbank et al studied the chin-lift head restraint mechanism
in action at one slaughterhouse and said, "It was not easy
to get some of the animals to use the head-restrainer, they
baulked, and showed signs of distress (jumping, bellowing,
trembling)." Blood cortisol levels (an indicator of stress)
were over twice as high in animals that were restrained. (27)
They conclude that great care needs to be taken when designing
and using head-restraint systems - otherwise the distress
caused by the enforced head restraint may be greater than
the benefit derived from more accurate stunning.
Disturbingly, the Meat Hygiene Service's Animal Welfare Review
says that 54 abattoirs out of 318 - 17% - either do not use
a head restraint system for cattle or, "use ineffective restraint
resulting in inefficient delivery of stun." (9)
Have head restraint systems improved stunning accuracy?
The MHS Animal Welfare Review 2000 provides figures on stunning
accuracy in abattoirs and levels of maintenance of captive
bolt guns (9).
OVS recorded levels of accuracy of stun/kill of cattle with
captive bolt pistol
- Consistently accurate placement - correct cartridge and
size (2 cm zone 100% of cattle): 114 plants
- Accurate placement, correct cartridge size (generally
in 2 cm zone for cattle): 196 plants
- Monitoring of the bolt hole shows consistently inaccurate
placement of the shot (outside the 4 cm zone): 2 plants
OVS recorded levels of maintenance of captive bolt gun
- Fully documented maintenance system. Sufficient guns (3)
regularly tested: 69 plants
- Regular maintenance carried out but not documented: 235
- No maintenance or poor maintenance: 5 plants
The MHS data is compiled in such a way that we cannot tell
exactly how many cattle are suffering the pain of poor stunning
- we do not know the throughput of the plants with serious
problems and when the OVS says that stunners are "generally
in 2cm zone", we do not know how many errors are being made.
One thing is clear - cattle continue to be inaccurately stunned
in UK abattoirs year after year.
BSE and the Captive Bolt Pistol
Despite the problems associated with inaccurate aim and incorrect
cartridge strength, the captive bolt pistol is generally acknowledged
to be the most effective method available for stunning mammals
awaiting the slaughterman's knife. However, recent scientific
evidence has shed doubt on the whole concept of captive bolt
stunning: particularly when the pistol is used to stun cattle.
A team of Bristol-based researchers led by Dr. M.H. Anil
have revealed that using penetrative captive bolt pistols
with subsequent pithing of cattle can result in potentially
infectious brain tissue entering the jugular venous blood.
The animal's heart will continue beating for several minutes
after the pistol has been used, meaning that there is a risk
that edible parts of the carcass will become contaminated
BSE legislation makes it clear that Specified Risk Material
(SRM) must be removed from cattle destined for human consumption
to minimize risk. Yet it's perfectly legal for the very same
tissues to be blasted into edible parts of the animal carcass.
Says BSE expert Dr Stephen Dealler, "These findings confirm
what I have long suspected - that captive bolt pistols may
represent a risk with regards to the transmission of BSE to
humans. If the brain is not acceptable to the human diet it
is worrying that a certain amount of these tissues are present
in parts of the carcass that are being consumed by humans.
Further research needs to be done into this but these findings
must be taken seriously." (29)
The Electric Goad
In addition to the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment,
surrounded by strangers, animals may have to endure painful
electric shocks from an electric goad.
Using an electric goad is acceptable under UK law. 1995 legislation
dictates goads designed for the purpose may be used, "on adult
bovine animals and adult pigs which are refusing to move,
provided that the shocks last no more than two seconds and
are adequately spaced out, the animal has room ahead of it
in which to move and such shocks are applied only to the muscles
of the hindquarters." (5)
An animal who is refusing to move forwards will already be
frightened and confused and it is barbaric to use electric
shocks to bully him or her into submission. In his book, "Animal
Welfare and Meat Science", NG Gregory says that the electric
currents applied through electric goads are, "intentionally
unpleasant or painful to animals". He explains that, "The
purpose of the electric shock is to make the animal move.
If the shock was not unpleasant, the animal would not move."
Researcher Temple Grandin says that, "repeated prodding often
results in increased vocalization and behavioural agitation".
In her USA survey, she found that over half of the instances
of cattle "vocalization" were caused by prodding with an electric
According to the MHS Animal Welfare Review 2000, 164 UK cattle
plants never use the electric goad and 118 plants "occasionally"
use electric goads on adult stock. In five cattle plants,
electric goads are "often used, or used on young stock or
used inappropriately." (9)
Handlers should not have to rely on giving animals painful
electric shocks in order to move them forward. Viva! believes
that the electric goad should be banned.
AI: The Final Insult
Worn out dairy cows may be subjected to a final, painful
humiliation before they are killed. It is becoming increasingly
common for novice artificial inseminators to practise on cull
cows in abattoirs.
A group of veterinary researchers investigating "do-it-yourself"
artificial insemination say that, "Novice inseminators are
inevitably slow. The prolonged manipulation of the reproductive
tract per rectum causes the cow discomfort and may lead to
trauma to the anal sphincter or rectum." (31)
An article in Farmers Weekly says that the financial benefits
of abattoir training are persuasive but concedes that, "for
welfare reasons... novice inseminators should not practice
on cows unless they are to be slaughtered on the training
The message here is that this practice is considered distressing
for cows - but that if they are about to be killed then this
does not matter. If it is not considered welfare-friendly
for trainees to practice AI on cows who are not about to meet
their deaths, why is it acceptable on the last day of a cow's
The "success" of this training method is attributed to the
fact that the technique can be evaluated after the cow has
been killed. A dye is used to colour the sperm, meaning that
once the cow has been killed, her reproductive organs can
be removed and the distribution of the sperm assessed.
MAFF say that they believe abattoir training is preferable
in the early stages to training carried out on farm and explain
that, "the brief interval between the "insemination" and slaughter
minimises any distress which might be caused by inexpert technique."
By the time a dairy cow arrives at the slaughterhouse, she
will be exhausted after a life-time of pregnancies and milking.
As Professor John Webster explains, "The dairy cow is a supreme
example of an overworked mother. She is by some measures the
hardest worked of all our farm animals and it can be scientifically
calculated. It is equivalent to a jogger who goes out for
six to eight hours every day, which is a fairly lunatic pursuit."
Viva! believes that at the very least, spent dairy cows deserve
to be saved from the additional stress and pain of having
novice inseminators practise on them in the run up to death.
Cull cows must be spared this final insult - whatever the
alleged financial benefits. Viva! calls on the Ministry of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to legislate against artificial
insemination training in abattoirs.
Pregnant cows are killed
A survey conducted by British Cattle Veterinary Association
(BCVA) in an abattoir in the south of England and published
in 1996 found that 23.5% of the cows slaughtered were pregnant.
26.9% of these were in the third trimester of their nine month
The average age of the cows was 7.9 years. According to the
farmers who sent them to slaughter, 28.2% were culled because
of infertility, 21.8% because of mastitis and 15.8% because
of old age.
50.9% of the farmers did not think the cows were pregnant
and 27.3% did not know. Only 21.8% of the farmers realized
the cow was pregnant. The author points out that killing the
pregnant cows constitutes a "severe economic loss" to the
dairy industry. At least 6% of culled cows are "discarded"
for fertility reasons when they are in fact pregnant.
Overall, 148,544 cows are estimated to have been culled when
pregnant. Of these, 39,958 cows would have been in the third
trimester of their pregnancy.