Stress and Slaughtering

Would there be any public interest in a food assurance scheme solely guaranteeing an exemplary slaughtering process?

We’ve been talking about meat quality in my Farm Animal Production module for the past few weeks, and I’ve been really surprised to learn just how much the slaughter process can affect meat quality.

 I knew that stressed animals produce meat of poorer quality, but the science behind it is actually fascinating. Long term stress prior to slaughter (12-48 hours) = depleted glycogen reserves in the muscle = high pH, darker colouring, drier meat. Short term stress prior to slaughter = breakdown of glycogen in muscle = production of lactic acid = lower pH, lighter colouring, tougher meat. Stress factors such as transit are obviously difficult to avoid, but handling in the abattoir and mixing animals unknown to each other are elements that we can control. There’s also the issue of certain breeds being more susceptible to stress, such as Jersey cows. There’s even pigs that will have inherited a lower threshold for coping with stress, resulting in sudden death.  

It’s a seriously complex process. But done well, with the correct handling facilities, and suitable process for different livestock, the slaughter process should not be an overly stressful or painful experience for animals. Whilst I imagine it isn’t pleasant to watch, and understand that many wouldn’t want to, I am starting to believe that it could be an important and positive experience for both farmers and consumers. Education on the effects of a negative experience during slaughter (other than death!) for livestock and subsequent meat quality should create a conversation that encourages greater respect for the process and rewards those that are getting it right.

However, the abattoirs are in an impossible position. There’s a limited number of people that would be willing to visit an abattoir to see how their meat is slaughtered, but there’s plenty of people who believe that the ‘undercover footage’ collected by animal rights groups and activists is an honest representation of the majority. Of course, not every abattoir undertakes the slaughter process as it should, just as not every business operates as it should in any other sector. There’s bad apples in every bag. This is a thought that causes, or should cause, concern to the vast majority of farmers. As I’ve touched on previously, we invest a lot of time, emotion and money in our livestock. No farmer wants to imagine that their animal is suffering during their final moments. Just as no consumer wants to imagine meat could be below par due to an inadequate slaughtering process.

Personally, I would like to see the slaughter process become much more transparent. In my research for this blog, I Googled various wordings which I hoped would lead me to an abattoir website which openly advertised the ability to visit and watch the slaughter process. Frustratingly, I found none. Although there were plenty of articles (positive and negative) detailing a slaughter house visitor experience. I think abattoirs would be reluctant, understandably, to open up their business, as this also opens them up to attack and abuse.

But if the farmers and the consumers knew what we wanted from the slaughter process, demanded a scheme that allowed us to see with just a glance at the packaging if our meat had been slaughtered with the upmost care, attention and respect deserved by the animal, wouldn’t that be an improvement in our confidence not only in the abattoir industry but in British produce as a whole? Assurance schemes such as Soil Association, Red Tractor and RSPCA do specify slaughtering standards, but if your meat is not marked by their assurance, what sort of abattoir has it come from?

Maybe if we stopped shouting and arguing about those that are shown to be getting it wrong, and started celebrating those that are getting it right, and understanding the process as a whole, everyone would begin to feel more secure in the knowledge that the meat on their plate was free from stress at the time of slaughter.

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