‘Humane Slaughter’: The story we need to leave behind

As a consumer who shops with his skepticism as much as his credit card, my interest is regularly drawn to those recurring messages telling me that some meats are the product of ‘high welfare’ standards, including claims of ‘grass fed’ or ‘pasture reared’ animals. Not far behind them is often another claim, that of ‘humane slaughter.’

How can violence intended to end an animal’s life be defined as humane, or an act of compassion? Not only is this assertion jarringly counter-intuitive, it seems to be intentionally confusing.

These marketing claims are beyond the scrutiny of the average consumer, whose only frame of reference is the popular media narrative of serene cattle grazing on bucolic, open pastures — never feedlots or factory farms — followed by a variety of packaged items in the refrigerated meat shelves.

The part where animals are prodded and shunted from this apparently idyllic existence, compacted and trucked to a saleyard, then onto a slaughterhouse and killed by various means, is conspicuously absent. Any interest in this is usually met by resistance from those involved and a caveat that ‘consumers will find it unpleasant.’

At a time when there is a global emphasis by the food industry to provide full transparency over all aspects of production [1][2][3][4][5][6] what motivates this obscurantism toward consumers and why is it tolerated?

The Industry claim that animals are slaughtered humanely is premised on the use of one of its tools, the captive bolt gun. These weapons are designed not to kill instantaneously, but to ‘stun’, inflicting a traumatic brain injury onto the animal and, according to its advocates, renders it insensible to pain or suffering.[7][8]

Veterinary science reveals to us a body of well-documented research into the mechanics and biology of slaughter conducted in controlled environments. The uncontrolled environment of the slaughterhouse remains scientifically inscrutable when it comes to assessing the efficacy of stunning methods. [9] On an animal’s capacity to experience pain after being stunned, it only advances a supposition that loss of consciousness equals insensibility, and attributes any random body movements to reflex activity of a dying animal.[10] It builds a whole case on what it deems to be ‘humane’ but after making a startling admission of ignorance, quite simply doesn’t know if it is so, and cannot provide any evidence in support of this claim.

Although measurements of brain electrical function [in animals subject to stunning methods] have been used to quantify the unconscious state, EEG (electroencephalographic) data cannot provide definitive answers as to onset of unconsciousness even when state-of-the-art equipment is used.

American Veterinary Medical Association, AVMA Guidelines for the humane slaughter of animals: 2016 edition

However, it can be falsified by experience in another clinical domain. Paradoxically, it is from those who work in emergency medicine and anaesthetics where a valuable comparative model for animals’ internal experience of pain can be found, based on human subjects who have sustained accidental traumatic brain injuries and are effectively ‘stunned’ in a coma.

The observation of body movements in those not yet pharmacologically paralysed, the upward trending of heart rate and blood pressure, the appearance of tears and that of sweat beading on skin, are all regarded by clinicians as surrogate markers for the experience of pain in their unconscious patients.[11]

Once treated with narcotic analgesia these objective observations resolve, indicating that any suffering has been alleviated.[12]

With this compelling and yet uncontroversial body of in vivo evidence, the claim that an unconscious animal with an injury to their similarly-evolved brain is insensible to pain can be summarily dismissed.

It follows that animals are entirely capable of experiencing the pain of blunt force skull and brain trauma, and, therefore, the subsequent hacking open of their neck, severing major arteries and veins to cause them to fatally bleed out, but are incapable of resisting, vocalising or expressing their pain because of that same trauma.

And by that time, of course, it is all over. Characterised by Isaac Bashevis Singer as “an eternal Treblinka,” [13] these animals join an unstoppable conveyor belt of killing on an incomprehensible scale, operating at speed to meet demand, so that their bodies can be eviscerated, butchered and packaged for sale.

Like all stories, the one about the humane slaughter of animals is actually about us — consumers who need the reassurance of skilled marketers to render our purchase of meat free from doubt or guilt, and to expunge from our consideration the final moments of the animal from which it was taken.

Manipulation of language is a potent tool ensuring our role in this commercial symbiosis is simply to acquiesce, passively accepting the façade without question, and to continue to consume.

But if we step out of this arrangement for a moment, we find that evolutionary biology informs our intuition [14]: Along with all other sentient vertebrates, we suffer pain as equals.

As 98% of us regard animal welfare as important and 75% think that animals need better protection [15], these are no longer matters which ought to be dealt with from behind the closed doors of slaughterhouses.

It is time we outgrew this fanciful story and turned to face the cold reality: If you are the victim, your slaughter is likely to be terrifying, painful and cruel.


[1] Accucentre, “Bringing consumers the product transparency they crave”, published online 2019, https://www.accenture.com/au-en/insight-perspectives-cgs-bringing-consumers-transparency

[2] Freedman, P.,”The importance of transparency for the FMCG Industry”, The Consumer Goods Forum, published online 14 August 2018, https://www.theconsumergoodsforum.com/the-importance-of-transparency-for-the-fmcg-industry/

[3] The Hartman Group,”Animal Welfare: Consumers want transparency”, Forbes, published online 11 September 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/thehartmangroup/2015/09/11/animal-welfare-consumers-want-transparency/#29d86249169d

[4] Genoways, T.,”Close to the bone: The fight over transparency in the meat industry”, New York Times, published online 5 October 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/09/magazine/meat-industry-transparency-fight.html

[5] Arratia, R., “Full product transparency gives consumers more informed choices”, The Guardian, published online 18 December 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/full-product-transparency-life-cycle-consumers

[6] Staniforth, J., “Transparency: The must-have ingredient for food companies”, Food Quality & Safety, published online 10 April 2017, https://www.foodqualityandsafety.com/article/transparency-must-ingredient-food-companies/?singlepage=1

[7] RSPCA Knowledgebase, “What does the term humane killing or humane slaughter mean?”, updated online 1 May 2019, https://kb.rspca.org.au/what-do-we-mean-by-humane-killing-or-slaughter_115.html

[8] World Animal Protection, “Humane slaughter: how we reduce animal suffering”, published online 2014, https://www.worldanimalprotection.org.au/our-work/animals-farming-supporting-70-billion-animals/humane-slaughter-how-we-reduce-animal

[9] American Veterinary Medical Association, “AVMA Guidelines for the humane slaughter of animals: 2016 edition (Version 2016.0.1)”, published online 2016, https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/AnimalWelfare/Documents/Humane-Slaughter-Guidelines.pdf “Although measurements of brain electrical function have been used to quantify the unconscious state, EEG data cannot provide definitive answers as to onset of unconsciousness even when state-of-the-art equipment is used…it is not always clear which EEG patterns are indicators of activation by stress or pain…in cattle…there is species variability in this response.”p8

[10] Terlouw, E.M.C., Bourguet, C., Deiss, V, Mallet, C., “Origins of movements following stunning and during bleeding in cattle”, Meat Science, Elsevier ScienceDirect, published online December 2015, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S030917401530053X

[11] Tyrer, S., Lievesley, A., “Pain following traumatic brain injury: assessment and management”, Neuropsychological Rehabilitation: An International Journal, published online 22 September 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21854334

[12] Rowe, R., Harrison, J, Thomas, T., Pauly, J., Adelson, P.D., Lifshitz, J., “Anesthetics and analgesics in experimental traumatic brain injury: Selection based on experimental objectives”, US National Library of Medicine, published online 1 August 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3876742/

[13] Singer, I.B., “The Letter Writer” in “The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First edition (August 1, 1983), New York; “What do they know-all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world — about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”

[14] Dawkins, R., “Richard Dawkins: Is animal cruelty the new slavery?”, Big Think Address, published online 1 September 2017, https://bigthink.com/videos/richard-dawkins-is-animal-cruelty-the-new-slavery

[15] State Government of Victoria, “Animal welfare action plan: Improving the welfare of animals in Victoria”, published December 2017, p12, http://agriculture.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/377123/Animal-Welfare-Action-Plan-Dec-2017.pdf

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