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A new system of stunning set to improve animal welfare

It is hoped that a new mechanism for stunning cattle will be accepted by the Muslim community for use in halal slaughter

06 April 2018, at 12:26pm

Awal Fuseini, a PhD student at the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science, presented a new system for stunning cattle at the Winterbotham Darby Animal Health and Welfare Day, held at the school on 8 March. The system induces unconsciousness in a different way to stunning techniques that are extensively used today.

Demand for halal meat is growing rapidly and in turn, an increasingly high proportion of farm animals are slaughtered while conscious. Much of this meat ends up on supermarket shelves and in restaurant meals without any indication as to the means of slaughter. “I can assure you that (unless you don’t eat meat) you would have, at some point, eaten meat from animals that were slaughtered without stunning,” said Awal.

How do the systems differ?

An animal’s brain has 85 billion neurons; these cells communicate by passing chemicals between one another. If an animal is stunned by passing electricity through the brain, communication is disrupted. That causes unconsciousness, Awal explained. In the system he is developing, electricity is instead applied directly to the cell and pores are created. In this novel technique, electroporation causes unconsciousness, he said.

Unconsciousness from conventional electrical stunning does not last very long. Awal noted that “If you stun a cow (head only), the duration of unconsciousness is likely to last an average of 55 seconds. Within that time, if you are bleeding the animal, the animal is likely to recover.” In the new system, the animal will only recover when the pores reseal. That, he claimed, takes no less than four minutes, and should be sufficient time for the animal to bleed to death without the risk of recovery.

Post-stun convulsions should also be reduced with the new system. In conventional stunning systems, these convulsions (characterised by kicking) are caused by the communication disruption between neurons. This effect is not safe for the slaughter operator, nor is it good for product quality.

“If we are able to extend the duration of unconsciousness, we will improve animal welfare. If we can eliminate the convulsions associated with conventional stunning, we can reduce the kicking injuries and we can improve product quality because it reduces bruising.” Most importantly though, Awal said, “we may be able to convince halal organisations to accept stunning”.

Implications for halal slaughter

In 2016, the team carried out a survey of 66 Islamic scholars from 55 organisations in the UK to see what they understood about stunning and whether they find it acceptable in halal slaughter. The scholars were asked if they believed that stunning induces unconsciousness. Around 80 percent answered no. They believed that stunning causes pain but does not induce unconsciousness. “They don’t understand why we stun an animal to cause it pain and then cause it pain again with slaughter,” explained Awal.

It was explained to the scholars that stunning has been shown scientically not to cause pain. They were then asked: “If stunning is shown to induce unconsciousness and doesn’t cause instantaneous death, would you accept stunning?” 95 percent said yes.

The system is still being developed. In the first stage of the research, voltage was applied to cattle heads and the amount of electricity that entered the head was measured. In the second stage, voltage was applied to brain cells to measure electroporation. At 130 joules, the poration of brain cells was optimal. Anything above that will kill cells and wouldn’t meet halal requirements. “We found the right parameters to humanely kill animals,” said Awal.

If a voltage source were applied to the head and pores were created in the cells, the animal would lose consciousness. However, if the animal isn’t bled, the pores will reseal and the animal will get up. This has important implications for halal preparation. “The Quran says to slaughter animals alive. It doesn’t say slaughter them conscious,” Awal explained. “We can stun animals, induce unconsciousness, but still meet the halal requirements.”

Live animal trials were to follow, as part of plans to produce a commercial unit. “We have found that induction of unconsciousness in this system will improve welfare, safety, meat quality, and may be accepted by the Muslim community,” Awal summarised.

In the question session following Awal’s presentation, it emerged that this system would be more expensive than the current system. Overcoming this cost increase may be a barrier to its widespread integration into slaughterhouses, particularly while there is no requirement for meat products to be labelled with the mechanism of slaughter. Cattle had been deemed the most important area to focus on; it was not noted whether the system might later be adapted for other animals. 

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