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Episode S1E7
How are farm animals slaughtered in Australia, and should we be concerned?

How are farm animals slaughtered in Australia, and should we be concerned? With Dr Bidda Jones from the RSPCA.
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Tuesday, 20 August 2019
Brian Daly interviews RSPCA Australia’s Chief Science and Strategy Officer, Dr Bidda Jones, to find out more about how farm animals are killed for food in Australia.


Theme music plays.

Opening quote: In Australia, every year, around 600 million animals are slaughtered for food. And just to put that number into perspective, that's 1.6 million animals every single day. So clearly there's a real need for the RSPCA to be looking at making sure that that is happening in the most humane way possible.

Theme music plays.

Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast series. My name is Brian Daly and today I'm talking with Bidda Jones, who's the Chief Science and Strategy Officer at RSPCA Australia. Welcome to the podcast Bidda.

Bidda: Thank you, Brian.

Brian: Now, Australians love their barbecues, their meat pies, their chicken schnities. And even with an increasingly varied cuisine, the diet of the vast majority of Australians includes meat and today we're broaching a subject we tend to avoid talking about and that is the end stage of the production of that meat, at the abattoirs. So, Bidda I'm going to throw you a word that's not bandied about much around the barbecue or the water cooler. And that's slaughter. So tell us a bit about that aspect of meat production in Australia.

Bidda: So we use the word slaughter when we're talking about killing animals specifically for food. And I think it's important to recognise that, that you know, that is part of animal production. In Australia, every year, around 600 million animals are slaughtered for food. So clearly, there's a real need for the RSPCA to be looking at making sure that that is happening in the most humane way possible. It's something that's a integral part of animal production.

Brian: Absolutely. And there are different methods for different species.

Bidda: Yes, so And I mean, out of that 600 million animals, the vast majority of those are actually meat chickens. We slaughter about 500 and 50 million meat chickens every year because one it's become, it's the dominant meat, and that's consumed. And of course, you know, a chicken is a fairly small animal compared to, you know, beef cattle. So when we, you know, we need more of them. But yeah, that's just a huge, huge demand. And while you know people will make different choices about their meat eating, while ever those animals are being slaughtered, it's really important that there's proper oversight of that, and work that can be done to try and make sure that standards are improved. Standards are enforced whenever they can. So in terms of methods, one of the key things to make sure that animals are slaughtered humanely is in the first instance to make sure they're slaughtered close to where they're produced. Because that transport journey from the farm to the abattoir, that's the first stage of the process, then animals are either handled if they're small, like poultry, or they're loaded off trucks put into what's called a lairage. That's the area outside an abattoir where animals are kept before they go through the slaughter process. So it's slightly it's different depending on the kind of animals that we're talking about. And but all of that side of the process that the handling prior to slaughter, that's just as important to get right as the actual slaughter process itself.

Brian: So it's not just the last step. That's how we get there. And I guess going back to the production methods of, the animals in the first place.

Bidda: And the way in which animals are handled prior to slaughter has a huge effect on the quality of the meat. So there's a good incentive there for everybody involved to do that well, that doesn't mean it's always done well. Of course, we know that you know, in all types of farming and all types of animal production. There are ways that we can do things better.

Brian: Yes. And there has been a few bits of footage pop up recently about things not going right in in abattoirs. How do we ensure that these that these standards are maintained?

Bidda: The best way to do that, I think is to have good standards in the first place. So there is a national standard that applies to, to all abattoirs in Australia, that's enforced at the state level by food authorities. Now their primary role is actually about food hygiene. So I think there's quite a lot that can be done to improve the level of oversight of animal welfare in abattoirs. At that state level, there's another level of oversight that comes if an abattoir is licenced, to export meat. So those good export, export approved abattoirs and in those abattoirs, they actually come under the federal government. And they will have an Australian government vet on site at all times, who is monitoring the health primarily of the livestock going through that abattoir. But they also do have a welfare role as well. On top of that, there are often accreditation systems where there's another level of oversight. So those are things that industries or retailers or food service companies might impose so that there's another level of checking. So quite a lot of abattoirs have auditors going through them on a regular basis, who are checking against animal welfare standards. So those are all ways that we can try to help ensure that people are doing the right thing.

Brian: You said that there's a vet on the export abattoirs but not on the domestic.

Bidda: No. Not if an abattoir is killing animals, just for domestic market, they're not required to have a vet. They will be inspected from time to time by that state food authority. But as I said, they're really there to look at food hygiene. So from the RSPCA point of view, we would like we would like CCTV cameras in all abattoirs to make sure that you know that there is always an understanding that everything that goes on there is being filmed. There are many abattoirs that have opted to go down that path as a voluntary measure, but it isn't compulsory in any state or territory in Australia at the moment. I think there's a lot that can be done to in terms of ensuring that good training and competency in abattoirs, it's not a job that many people want to do. No, there's a quite a labour shortage in that area. There's quite a turnover of workers and would not surprising because I think a lot of people find it uncomfortable work. But it's really important that everybody who's working in that environment is well trained, knows what their job is, and that there are people monitoring what they do. And there are also programs to make sure that people don't become too habituated to the fact that they're killing animals every day. I mean, that that takes a toll on people. I think all of that is really important to make sure that no, people don't lose sight of compassion. They understand that, you know, these are sentient animals that that are going through this process, and it is really important, they're handled in the best possible way, and that everything that happens to them ensures that they have the most humane death possible.

Brian: Yes. And that's, especially when there's such a huge demand, as you were saying for made in Australia that there were the ones that are asking them to do this job.

Bidda: Absolutely. Yes. And, and again, you know, that we do have a big responsibility when you're dealing with those sorts of numbers. We really do need to make sure that everybody is doing the best job that they can. Now we know that that doesn't always happen. And you've talked about footage that shows that it doesn't happen. I think that is the exception, not the rule. But there are certainly things that we can do and that the RSPCA has been working on for some time to try and improve standards. So we're involved in the national standard setting process, we have input into that process. We don't always get exactly what we'd like to because those are always processes of compromise. But I think, you know, that is one way that we can keep pushing forward. We would like really to see that level of enforcement at the state level. Those regulators need to be really well trained and understanding animal welfare concepts. So there's a lot of a lot of work, I think that can still be done to improve public confidence in what's happening in abattoirs on a daily basis in Australia.

Brian: Yes, because we'd all feel a lot better knowing that our animals were treated and reproduction for our food was well treated well.

Bidda: That's right. And that also includes finding better ways to stun animals. So I haven't talked about that.

Brian: No, that's, what I was going to say that. So we've got them to the facility and the transports been minimised, and they're close to the farm. These are all the desirable ways to minimise fear and distress in the animals beforehand. And then so how's the last stages then in the process?

Bidda: Yeah, well, a really important part of principle of animal slaughter in Australia is pre slaughter stunning. So stunning is about making sure that the animal is not conscious when they're actually killed. There are different methods that are used for different animals to do that. So with meat chickens, for example, the most common method in Australia is using an electrical stun. And that's done within an electric water bath, where the chicken is actually lowered, head goes into the water bath and it receives an electric shock. There are there can be issues with that method, if a bird doesn't actually receive that electric shock, or if the shock isn't sufficient to be able to keep it unconscious for the slaughter process. So there's a you know that there are these high risk areas that we really need to make sure that we're, achieving better results. So there are a couple of other methods that are also available for meat chickens. One is called controlled atmosphere stunning, and that's using gas. So another method that isn't in use in Australia yet but we'd like to see here is called low atmospheric pressure, stunning or laps, and that's basically where birds are kept in their transport container, they go into a chamber and the pressure is gradually lowered and they gradually lose consciousness. So some methods are more reliable than others, some methods are more consistent than others. Some methods are more humane than others. And obviously what we're really working to try and encourage the introduction of those, those better stunning methods.

Brian: And methods that can be applied to large numbers.

Bidda: Yes, yes, absolutely. Well, you know, when there are so many animals being killed, and just to give put that 600 million number into perspective, that's 1.6 million animals every single day. That's a lot of work. A lot of oversight a lot of times to get this right, because for every single animal, it matters whether you've got that process, right.

Brian: Absolutely. And you know, those numbers are quite staggering in something we do not think about as we chow down on the local takeaway.

Bidda: Yes, yes. And I guess it's, um, you know, we're often asked in the RSPCA, you know, what are our views about eating meat and the sort of the amount of meat that's consumed in Australia, that really is a personal choice for people. But our job is about improving animal welfare. And while there are 1.6 million animals being slaughtered in Australia, we really have to make sure that we're spending our efforts trying to make sure that that is done well. So that we can, you know, ensure that we've got humane outcomes for those animals

Brian: Because you're dealing with the here now.

Bidda: Absolutely, yes. Yes. Yes.

Brian: So you're talking about the stunning is a an essential part of the process what happens if if they're not stunned?

Bidda: So what we're trying to avoid with stunning is an animal having its throat cut, which is generally had had the actual killing processes occurs. While it's fully conscious, so I've talked a little bit about meat chickens, but with other animals like larger livestock like sheep, and cattle, that's often done with what's called captive bolt stunning, which is basically it's a, it's a percussive blow to the head, that renders the animal unconscious. Now, that can be done in a way that is either reversible, which means the animal could recover, or is irreversible, that the best way to stun an animal is an irreversible stun, then there's no danger that they will recover before the actual process of killing the animal is over. So all of that is about making sure that what happens afterwards is completely pain free. And that's really crucial. So abattoirs need to have systems in place to make sure that when an animal is stunned it is effective, they need to have backup systems. So if they see that stun hasn't been effective, then the animal is stunned again. You know if equipment breaks down they've always got to have two sets of equipment. So that and, you know, backup stunner, and that isn't just isn't, you know, two steps away, is right there. Because time is obviously really important for all of this, particularly if you're working in an abattoir situation where animals are coming through at a set pace, there's a conveyor belt type system, it's all really important that those systems work well. And of course, regular auditing is one of the things that make sure that that happens.

Brian: And of course, you know, in case of beef they’re quite large animals as well.

Bidda: They are so there's all sorts of benefits to for the people working in those environments to have an animal stun before they're actually going through the, the difficult business of, of the throat cut, or really what that killing process is about severing major blood vessels, so the animal dies because of loss of blood. That's the process, but you've got to be able to get you know, a large animal you know, 500 kilos into a position where that can be done humanely. Stunning is a key part of that process. But you want to make sure when that animal reaches that point that you are able to consistently apply that captive bolt. So that you're going to have a really high rate of effective stunning.

Brian: And so are all animals in Australia stunned is that the law?

Bidda: So that brings us to the difficult topic of religious slaughter because not all animals are stunned. A very small proportion of animals aren’t stunned under religious slaughter requirements. So that that means that they've been to those abattoirs. And there's only eight of them in Australia that are allowed to do this. But those animals those abattoirs sorry, have an exemption to the pre slaughter stunning rule that applies everywhere else. Now, there's a lot of confusion around this. So I think it's important to sort of explain it in some detail, but there are two main religions that ask for stunning without slaughter. So that's Islam and Judaism. So we've got Halal slaughter under Islamic law, and we've got Kosher slaughter under Jewish law. Halal slaughter, for the most part in Australia does include stunning. So if that's really, that's a big difference between what happens in Australia and lots of overseas countries, and there is a lot of confusion around that. So just because a meat product in Australia or overseas is Halal certified, that doesn't mean that the animal wasn't stunned. In fact, most of the time, it means that it was done. Yes. Okay. So that's a really important distinction to make. So, you know, these eight abattoirs that have exemptions, there's only a small proportion of animals going through those abattoirs that would actually not be stunned. And so we’re talking sheep, cattle and poultry. Those are the only animals that fit under those exemptions.

Brian: And of course, it's no pork products?

Bidda: No not for either of those religions.

Brian: Yes, I have seen on your Facebook page there's always a lot of questions about this and the confusion as you mentioned or I imagine sometimes intentionally, inflammatory misinformation. But it sounds like this, it's something that's being addressed, especially with the Halal slaughter in Australia.

Bidda: I mean, I think it's really important that people understand this, not jump to conclusions around it. And certainly if they want some more detailed information, then go to the RSPCA knowledgebase because we have specific articles around Halal slaughter and Kosher slaughter. I've said that it's only a small number of animals in Australia. We as the RSPCA still would prefer that didn't happen. We think that the most humane way to slaughter animals requires pre slaughter stunning and we would like to see that apply in all abattoirs. So, you know that's our view. I think the religious arguments around this are complicated and there are certainly religious communities who, you know they this is this is their tradition has been for a long time and we talk to those groups, you know we maintain a dialogue over this topic, but it is something that we would prefer didn't happen.

Brian: Yes. So I guess the issue when we talk about these religious exemptions is not so much about from a religious point of view, it's about the stunning or non stunning at the end.

Bidda: Yes, that's right. We actually have for a number of years been encouraging our supporters to write to their state and territory MPs about removing exemptions to stunning in Australian abattoirs. So that's something that that people can do if they're concerned about this, but no, it's not about it's not about particular religion. It's about whether animals are stunned. And I just again, I think it's important to emphasise that when it comes to Halal slaughter in Australia, the vast majority of animals that are slaughtered under Halal requirements are stunned. In fact, there's no real difference to the process involved for that as there is for any other kind of slaughter.

Brian: It's really interesting talking about this because culturally, we, we don't really deal with death head on, we tend to put it to the side and the majority of us are quite removed from food production as well. So to put it bluntly, most of us are happy to eat meat, but we don't want to kill it or know the details behind there. But I think that's it's important for us to know, what goes on and how the RSPCA is making sure that that's done in the most humane way possible. These animals are being slaughtered for our consumption.

Bidda: Yes, no, it is. It is difficult and I mean, the first time I went to an abattroir, I was quite nervous about the whole process and how I would feel about that. But I think it is really important to understand the process that happens while animals are still conscious. And then what happens afterwards when they are not suffering because they're unable to feel pain after this stunning process. So we've talked a little bit about the process that happens before an animal gets to the point of being stunned. But let's talk about what happens after that. So if the stun is effective, and the animal is completely unconscious, if it's a reversible stun, then the stun only lasts for a certain amount of time. So obviously, it's really important that the killing process occurs before they recover from that stun. So that might be a matter of seconds to minutes. An irreversible stun is when the stunning process actually kills the animal so that they will not recover. But the actual killing process must involve the animal being bled out. So that's a process of cutting the throat or severing the major arteries, so that the animal loses blood and the brain dies, the heart stops, and the animal is dead. So that all happens in that period after stunning, while the animal has no ability to feel pain, and that's really crucial. And there's a lot of research around actually looking at things like brain activity in that time. So that we're able to monitor you know, the effectiveness of stunning we know what electrical currents are required for different sizes of animals, all of that that's all really important work that helps us make sure that that process is actually on an unconscious animal. And that's also part of the checking process that happens so that there are there are checks that the workers can do to make sure an animal is unconscious. So a really obvious one is a corneal reflex. So just touch the cornea of the eye. If there's no response to that that, then you know that the animals insensible can't feel any pain. So it's really a crucial timing issue there for, especially for the reversible, stunning.

Bidda: Absolutely, yes, yes. And again, I mean, these things are, no, it's always hard to talk about them, and you sort of have to talk about it in a dispassionate way that that doesn't mean that, you know, obviously, it's really, really important that that process happens properly, because that's all about making sure that that animal doesn't suffer during the process.

Brian: And as you were saying before, even for the workers involved in this sort of industry, it would be really hard going if something goes wrong, they see the pain see suffering, so they don't want to see any of that it must take them. They want to see the process is done well.

Bidda: That's right. And, of course, that's another reason why it's really important that they're well trained and competent in what they do.

Brian: We are so far removed from as a society that I remember hearing one guy that was like 25 or something like that. And he was quite an educated fellow. And he's in Sydney and he said, I've only just realised that the chicken I eat is the same as the chicken the animal that I see in the fields, there's like this, this so far removed from that, that when I've heard the same from people with eggs as well as they are, I hadn't thought of where they produced. I just thought I'd got it from the carton, and this from this and otherwise quite intelligent people.

Bidda: Well, it's, and it is really, I mean, that's obviously you know, if you go into a supermarket and buy a food packaging, then you can see how that happens. But I guess that is also part of the RSPCA's job is to help educate people and inform people about where our food comes from, and to provide the information that helps people make more ethical choices about that food. So you know, that's what our Humane Food Program is all about.

Brian: Thanks, Bidda. It's been fascinating to talk about this topic, the one that we want to avoid so much, but to me what we care deeply about animals that give us companionship, but we tend not to think too much about the animals that give us even more, which is, you know, the very food we have to survive. So, to me, it's to ensure we care for them, at least as well as that and to have, you know, that basic respect for these sentient beings to know that they're being treated humanely as a very reassuring thing. So thanks for your time today.

Bidda: Thank you.

Brian: And thank you for listening. If you would like any more information about today's topic, visit the RSPCA Australia website at rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the website or all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.

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