Antonio Velarde, an expert in animal welfare, has analyzed the main dangers for these animals: the training of slaughterhouse personnel (in Spain and other countries) is one of the main causes of their discomfort.
Heat or cold stress, fatigue, prolonged thirst and hunger, impaired or restricted movement, social stress, pain, fear and distress are what they feel poultry, pigs, rabbits and cows when transported to the slaughterhouse where they are slaughtered. These are, without a doubt, the most delicate moments for your well-being.
The latest document, recently published in the EFSA magazine, focuses on the impacts of cattle during these procedures, and joins the series of scientific opinions on slaughter in slaughterhouses already carried out previously in other animals. The aim is for scientists to propose recommendations and mitigation measures to minimize animal suffering.
What is the point of these types of queries?
Only public bodies can make the request and they do so to have a scientific basis for a specific action, such as a revision of the legislation – in this case the 2009 one – or to have starting scientific arguments for a position with other connotations such as the socioeconomic or cultural. With these reports we want to establish that scientific basis so that it can then be managed properly, based on knowledge.
Despite regulations to ensure animal welfare in slaughterhouses, animals suffer during the process. What have they found?
The last phase of production, which is transport and slaughter, is possibly one of the most important. The animals have been on the farm all their lives, with specific feeding and care conditions, a routine and staff in charge of them, when suddenly one day they are taken out of their safe environment and put in a truck, in a totally new environment. Then they take them to the slaughterhouse, mixing them with unknown animals and other people. It is a particularly sensitive moment that causes stress in animals. It has to be regulated in order to be able to identify the causes that cause well-being problems and thus solve it or, at least, minimize the impact.
What happens during transportation, for example?
The animals are without eating or drinking, and their movements are restricted at these times. In addition, the vehicle moves and it is surely the first time they are inside. If it is possible to identify the potential dangers, they can be influenced. That is the idea of the opinion: to identify the causes of discomfort.
But both transport and arrival at the slaughterhouse are unavoidable processes. What alternatives exist to avoid suffering?
These factors cannot be eliminated because it is a part of the production process, but if they are known, the negative impact they may have can be reduced. For example, we would look for a truck that is adapted to the conditions if we know that it is difficult for them to climb a very steep ramp, that they have adequate space in the transport so that they can all rest at the same time and lie down without having to fight. If we know that more than 18 or 24 hours without eating produces a feeling of hunger, we must prevent them from being much longer without food. It is also important that the people who handle these animals have knowledge of how they perceive the environment and what their behavior is so that they can manipulate them by reducing stress.
Stress is the greatest suffering in these animals. Have you observed differences in individuals, ages or sexes?
Within cattle, it depends on the previous life they have had. Animals that have lived in extensive farming are more difficult to manage in terms of restricted space or contact with people when loading them into the truck. There are also animals that have a physical problem such as a limp or an injury and their movements are compromised. These are more difficult to transport, but, for that, the regulation already says that not all individuals are suitable for transport. An inspection has to be done and those who cannot endure the journey – because they cannot move by themselves – should not be transported. In these cases, the slaughter is forced to be done on the farm.
Regarding the other slaughtered animals such as birds, rabbits and pigs, the capacity for suffering is also the same, but can there be differences?
The capacity for suffering is the same in all animals from birds, rabbits, pigs and cattle. They are animals with the ability to have emotions and that is scientifically proven. But due to their behavior or their nature, many times the causes that cause stress in one species are different from those of others. For example, pigs are monogastric (single stomach), which, unlike ruminants, may be more sensitive if transport is long and may be more prone to dizziness in trucks. The pig is also more hierarchical and can have behavior that can cause some things to be perceived in a different way. But ultimately, the ability to experience emotions and suffer if exposed to a negative environment is similar across species.
One of the processes that are carried out to avoid greater suffering to these living beings is stunning before death, but this step does not always work, and the animals may still be conscious at that moment. Is it so?
At the time of the slaughter and bleeding, it is an obligation to stun all the animals. They have to be unconscious because holding and cutting causes pain. Unconsciousness must be generated before stunning and it must be prolonged until the death of the animal. But stunning systems work under certain conditions and it must be taken into account that these conditions are guaranteed for it to be effective. That is why we propose that after each stunning it be evaluated whether the animal is unconscious or not. Indicators of unawareness are proposed for monitoring. If it is detected at any time that the animal is about to regain consciousness, it must be immediately stunned again so that it does not regain consciousness. Then you have to review the parameters that may have caused that to have failed.
In addition to this, what are the main problems or failures that can be found in slaughterhouses?
Although they are increasingly prepared, a characteristic of animal suffering in the slaughterhouse is that since it occurs before slaughter, any situation of stress or welfare problem will be reflected in the quality of the meat. For example, if unknown animals are mixed together and start fighting and climbing on top of each other, this will cause bruising which will later affect quality. If they spend a long time fasting, it will also cause losses. This repercussion has made slaughterhouses increasingly concerned and aware, not only about welfare, but also about the quality of the meat.
How can staff handling animals influence their suffering?
In addition to the design of the slaughterhouse, the training of personnel has always been a critical point. It is almost the most important. Workers must be trained and have the knowledge to handle animals. The legislation requires that there be a certification of competence to be able to work directly with animals. The problem that is often found is the low salary that is paid and the rotation of these jobs. This prevents people from consolidating. The greatest threat to animal welfare in slaughterhouses is seasonality and working conditions.
What recommendations have you proposed to improve animal welfare?
Above all, emphasis is placed on the design of the slaughterhouses guaranteeing well-being, for example, that the waiting pens are protected from any inclement weather, and that the center has ventilation to ensure thermal comfort and rest. Driving corridors must also be adequate in terms of lighting. To this is added the training and education of the staff, that they understand the animals, that they know how they behave, how they perceive (see and hear) the environment… This can help them to have a calmer handling. It is also recommended that the truck unload the animals quickly on arrival at the slaughterhouse, and that the animals be slaughtered as soon as possible to reduce the time spent in the slaughterhouse. Being a new environment, the slaughterhouse will always produce a stressful situation, even if we don’t want it to.
Somehow these measures are not being taken in the current regulation?
Well, they are collected regarding the slaughterhouse design and the staff training certificate. The novelty of the opinion, which can help the legislation, is that we have tried to find measures in the animal that help workers to make decisions. Normally the requirements of the legislation are based on the installations, the environment and the temperature, among others. What we are trying to collect here is how the operator can assess whether an animal is cold or hot, if it has difficulty moving, what indicators it may have for unconsciousness, etc. Animal-based measures have been sought because, ultimately, welfare is something inherent to it. It is neither in the facilities nor in the handling, it is the animal who feels it. Therefore it is necessary to focus more towards him.
And that it be treated more like a living being than an object…
Yes, we have to recognize the ability of animals to have emotions, but we also have to be able to differentiate them from our anthropomorphic feelings. When the animals go to the slaughterhouse they feel stress because the situation is new, but they do not suffer because they know they are going to die. There is no evidence to show that the animals know what their final destination will be.