Humane Slaughter?

Although the U.S. technically has “humane slaughter” laws, they provide very little protection to pigs, cows, sheep and goats, and do not provide any protection for chickens, turkeys, or other birds.

 Pigs being herded toward slaughter. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals
Pigs being herded toward slaughter. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

Literally thousands of undercover investigations have revealed the same horrific abuse and suffering in slaughterhouses all over the world.

But what people often don’t know is that animals raised under many humane labels also end up at the same slaughterhouses as factory-farmed animals.

If you have never seen footage from inside a typical slaughterhouse before, the video below is a good place to start. It is extremely powerful while showing no blood, slaughter, or overt violence. It shows the experience of a cow waiting in line to die.

humane slaughter

What Is Humane Slaughter?

In short, “humane slaughter” means that farmed animals are supposed to be “stunned” (rendered unconscious or insensible to pain) before their throats are slit.

However, in addition to being arbitrarily defined, humane slaughter laws are largely unenforced.

Why stunning? Slaughterhouse killing methods seek to maximize speed, and it is widely believed that the fastest way to drain animals of all of their blood is to slit their throats while their hearts are still beating.

A beating heart will continue to pump blood and will thus cause blood to circulate and exit a severed jugular more quickly. This is referred to as “bleeding out.”

Because it takes several minutes for blood to drain from an animal’s body, and because being stabbed in the neck causes substantial suffering, many countries, including the U.S., have passed “humane slaughter” laws stipulating that farmed animals must be stunned before being bled out.

The most common stunning methods include shooting animals in the forehead with a “captive bolt” pistol, or electrocuting them. Both stunning methods are supposed to render the animals unconscious before their throats are slit.

Increasingly, though, consumers are becoming aware that stunning practices are frequently ineffective at inducing unconsciousness, which leads to tremendous pain and suffering. The result of ineffective stunning is that millions of animals are shot in the head or electrocuted multiple times, and/or have their throats slit while still fully conscious.

Federal inspectors have gone on record stating that, due to inspection loopholes developed in collusion with the meat industry, they are virtually powerless to enforce humane slaughter laws. (See “They Die Piece by Piece.”)

A few humane certification labels (labels requiring third-party auditing) have stricter regulations pertaining to slaughter, and farms receiving their stamp of approval will often send animals to smaller, local slaughterhouses like the one in the video below.

However, the two year-old steer at this Certified Humane® slaughter facility clearly exhibits panic and fear from the first second of footage. Not only must he be prodded into the killing stall, but he is foaming at the mouth and showing the whites of his eyes–both direct signs of severe stress and fear in cattle.

Aside from being briefer, how different is his emotional experience from that of the cow in the previous video?

Unfortunately, even at small slaughter facilities that comply with the strictest humane labeling requirements, animals experience confusion, stress, and terror. Many endure the same horrific agonies that animals in industrial slaughterhouses suffer. These include regular incidents of unsuccessful bolt stunning, in which the animal is not rendered unconscious by the firing of a bolt into his brain, but remains awake and crying out as a second or even third bolt is shot into his skull.

Consider this write-up of a visit to another Certified Humane® slaughter facility:

“He tells me it makes him sad when the cows aren’t stunned on the first shot. He says that that can happen anywhere, even when a small farm hires him to kill one cow in a field.
At Prather, it happens about twice each slaughter day. And the cow that was mooing on our way in isn’t the last one we hear that morning; another starts mooing in the squeeze chute.
Because its skull is too old, too thick for a stunner, Towne has to use a 9 mm instead. It moos and moos until Towne yells, ‘Fire in the hole!’ and shoots it between the eyes.”

On a typical slaughter day at this Certified Humane® farm, 2 out of 21 cows expressed distress vocalizations and two had to be shot in the head twice.

This stress/suffering ratio fails to meet even the USDA’s notoriously lax criteria for “humane slaughter.”

Captive-bolt stunning is not the only way that animals are rendered unconscious before slaughter. Because pigs are highly social and become easily distressed in an unfamiliar environment, group gassing with CO2 is frequently touted as the most “humane” method for stunning pigs.

However, footage reveals that CO2 stunning causes immense suffering in pigs, as seen in the video above.

The Humane Slaughter Act Does NOT Extend to Birds

Because there are no humane slaughter laws at all protecting birds, chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, and others can be killed by whatever method the producer prefers, including having their throats slit while they are still fully conscious.

The “kill cone” method of slaughter in the video below is perhaps the most common small farm slaughter technique for chickens.

Chicken slaughter on a free range pasture farm

Ultimately, when we have access to plant-based foods and understand that eating animals is not necessary for good health, we should ask ourselves: even in the best case scenario, what is humane about killing animals we have no need to harm at all?

First-Hand Experience

As former beef and dairy farmer Harold Brown writes:

“I have often heard the word ‘humane’ used in relation to meat, dairy, eggs, and other products… I have always found this curious, because my understanding is that humane means to act with kindness, tenderness, and mercy.

I can tell you as a former animal farmer that while it may be true that you can treat a farm animal kindly and show tenderness toward them, mercy is a different matter.

I hardly thought twice about the things I had to do on the farm: driving cattle, castrations, dehorning, and I did my fair share of butchering too. Nowadays I ask myself from both the perspective of the old me and the new me, what does humane mean in the way it is being used?

The old me says, ‘That is an odd word to associate with meat, dairy, and eggs, but hey, if it sells more products, why not?’ The new me asks, ‘Back in the day, I could, and did, raise animals with kindness and tenderness, but how did I show them mercy?’ Mercy—a unique human trait of refraining from doing harm.”

Read more from former meat and dairy farmers who had a change of heart.

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