PART FOUR: Cattle slaughter | Viva!

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 conscious.

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, " 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 plants
  • 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 (28).

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." (30)

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 goad. (8)

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 day". (32)

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 life?

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." (33)

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." (34)

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 pregnancy. (35)

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.