Harold Hillman's pages from New Humanist, Sep/Oct 2010By certain readings of the Jewish and Islamic faiths it is forbidden to eat meat from an animal that was injured or unhealthy prior to being slaughtered. Any animal stunned before slaughter is considered to have been injured, meaning the meat would not be “kosher” or “halal”. So under the Jewish “shechita” and Muslim “dhabihah” methods of ritual slaughter, the animal is restrained and, while it remains fully conscious, its neck is cut. It loses consciousness and eventually bleeds to death.

In the UK, where 900 million animals are slaughtered for food each year, all methods involve death by loss of blood, but it is a legal requirement for animals to be stunned before slaughter, in order to minimise pain. Legal exemptions, however, are granted on religious grounds to allow for the production of kosher and halal meat, and as a result more than 100 million animals are slaughtered each year without first being stunned.

It’s an issue that outrages both secularists and animal rights activists, with the government facing repeated calls to follow the example of Norway, Sweden and New Zealand by imposing a full ban on slaughter without stunning. The National Secular Society, which describes the exemptions “as a further example of how the . . . government allows the incursions of religious privilege into legislation”, welcomed a recent proposal by the European Parliament to introduce mandatory labelling on ritually slaughtered meat, saying “animals should not be made to suffer because of centuries-old religious practices”. The British Humanist Association takes a similar line, arguing that “the case against allowing religious methods of slaughter without pre-stunning is overwhelming”. Meanwhile, though it will come as no surprise to learn that the Vegetarian International Voice for Animals (Viva) is against slaughter, it is worth noting that it is particularly opposed to ritual methods on the grounds that “the terror and pain which these animals experience is immense.”

This view has also long been held by the respected Farm Animal Welfare Council, which recommended a ban to the government as long ago as 1985, reporting that it was not “convinced by arguments that direct cutting of the throat when carried out speedily and efficiently causes the animal no more suffering than if it had been effectively stunned”. It reiterated this position in 2003, arguing that exemptions should be repealed. Last year, a study led by Craig Johnson, a Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Neurophysiology at Massey Univeristy in New Zealand, appeared to back this view. Johnson and his team demonstrated that, in un-stunned calves, pain signals can be detected from the brain for up to two minutes after the throat has been cut. Even DEFRA agreed with this view – responding to the FAWC in 2005, it noted “that scientific evidence indicates that animals that receive an effective pre-cut stun do not experience pain at the time of slaughter,” but refused to ban ritual slaughter on account of its commitment to “respect for the rights of religious groups”.

But, while there is little doubt that animals killed without stunning experience significant pain, is it actually true to say that stunning makes for a pain-free death? Let us examine the details. One common method used to stun animals is the application of powerful electric currents to their heads, before their necks are cut. Its advocates’ belief that this is more humane than cutting the throats of conscious animals is, however, based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “stunning”. Veterinary dictionaries indicate that there are two elements to stunning – paralysing the animals and anaesthetising them. While paralysis is evident, there is absolutely no evidence in physiology, anaesthetics or surgery of burns that electricity anaesthetises. However, slaughterers and those who execute prisoners by the electric chair erroneously believe that animals and human beings lose consciousness as soon as the powerful electric currents are applied.

In the early 19th century the English surgeon Charles Bell and the French physiologist Francois Magendie showed that nervous systems are composed of two elements, which are separate, anatomically and physiologically. The sensory system receives signals from the environment and from the body. The motor system moves the muscles. For example, when a doctor injects local anaesthetic to sew up a skin wound in the finger, the patient cannot feel the suture, but can move the finger quite freely. In this case, the sensory system is blocked, while the motor system is working. A patient who awakens during an operation on the abdomen may still be able to feel, although he or she may not be able to move, due to paralysing drugs. In this case, the motor system is inhibited, while the sensory system is functioning. When large electric currents are applied, the skin is burned, and the muscles are stimulated. Stimulation causes muscle cramp, due to insufficient oxygen, followed by paralysis, not only of muscles of movement, but also the respiratory muscles and vocal cords. This causes extremely distressing “air hunger”, which cannot be satisfied. The cramp, the pain and the asphyxia may cause the person being electrocuted to faint.

Last year BBC 3 broadcast Kill It, Cook It, Eat It, in which participants ate meat from anmals they had just seen slaughtered. Immediately after the current was applied through tongs clamped to their heads, the animals fell down. They were then hoisted by hooks through their hind limbs, their throats were cut and they were exsanguinated (bled) and skinned. Many of the animals showed twitching movements during the procedure but the majority of the audience believed that the animals suffered no pain. They regarded the stunning and slaughter as rapid and humane. The reason for believing that there is no pain involved is that when healthy conscious animals are in severe pain, they make loud noises and thrash around. But because the electric current paralyses, there are no such signs after stunning, leading observers to conclude that there is no pain.

In fact, the medical literature from a wide variety of disciplines reveals that electric currents do cause pain to man and animals. People who touch live electric mains suffer painful burns, while histological examination of small lesions, caused accidentally or by electric torture, shows evidence of burns. In the US, police armed with taser guns, which transmit electricity to immobilise suspects, are subjected to them as part of their training. They say it is very painful indeed.

Amnesty International has extensive documentation of prisoners in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other countries who have been tortured electrically. The torturers, the victims and some heroic volunteers in Denmark have all found that the greater the power used, the greater the pain. At the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, in London, I have personally taken histories and physically examined dozens of victims of electrical torture. They told me that they had been bound to chairs or metal bedsteads, so that they could not pull their limbs away from the electrodes; the electric currents made their muscles contract and, as the current was increased, painful cramp ensued. They had difficulty in breathing, but could not cry out because of the paralysis of their respiratory muscles and vocal cords. They sweated, sometimes micturated and sometimes defaecated. Sometimes they fainted from the pain, but unless they fainted, the electric currents did not anaesthetise them. They sometimes had burns at the sites of the electrodes. The power of the instruments used for this kind of torture is similar to that used in stunning animals for slaughter – from a physiological viewpoint, I can see no reason why animals should not react to large electric currents in the same way as human beings do.

Prominent physiologists such as Professor Neville Gregory of the Royal Veterinary College, London, and Dr Temple Grandin of Colorado State University have concluded that electrical stunning of animals is humane. But neither of these authorities discuss whether animals are insensate after stunning. No physiologists investigating animal slaughter, other than myself, have considered the evidence from the electrical torture of human beings, and yet it is standard practice to regard evidence from animal physiology as relevant to humans. So why are findings in humans not applied to animals? The reluctance to do so seems inexplicable.

There is plenty of evidence, direct and indirect, that an electrically stunned animal suffers more pain than a ritually slaughtered one. “Shechita” and “dhabihah” may be “centuries-old religious practices”, but it does not necessarily follow that we should oppose their use today without first thoroughly reviewing the evidence. That is the rational approach that we, as humanists and secularists, should adopt, taking care not to be driven by any prejudices we may have against religion. More detailed research into the effects of electrical stunning is needed before we can be sure that it leads to relatively pain-free slaughter. In the meantime, perhaps the opponents of ritual slaughter need to review their position – it would be very sad if an alliance of well-meaning vegetarians, humanists and European lawmakers were to encourage the spread of cruel practices in the belief that they were being humane.