pre slaughter stunning

ESCAS; the importance of pre-slaughter stunning of cattle prior to slaughter.

40 years ago in Australia, pre-stunning of cattle prior to slaughter, quite literally was a blow to the head, with a sledge hammer! Specialised equipment is now used to ensure stunning is maximised in effectiveness and safety for both animal and operator. I support continual improvement in animal welfare but this can only be achieved through learning, practice and research. I would prefer all Australian live cattle export markets did stunning prior to slaughter because in my view pre-stunning increases positive animal welfare outcomes, that mainly being minimization of stress and pain for each and every individual animal. There is absolutely no doubt that live export has had poor animal welfare incidents occur but it has also shown a history of significant animal welfare improvements prior to and after the implementation of ESCAS.The most important in my view for improvement in animal welfare in live export is pre-slaughter stunning. Pre-stunning is not an OIE standard but it is encouraged and strongly supported through ESCAS. All cattle slaughtered in Australia are required to be stunned pre-slaughter with provision for ritual slaughter is post-stunned.

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Stunning – What is it? Stunning is striking a very strong and specifically targeted blow to the forehead of an animal with the intention of it either being lethal or the animal loses consciousness. The brain moves back and forth inside the skull so fast and hard it collides with the skull disrupting the electrical function of the brain, like a reactionary shock, the brain reacts by shutting down and is unable to process of the stimulus of pain that it receives from nerves, the animal is unconscious. Stunning causes the animal to lose its sensibility or comprehension of what is going on around it. After being stunned the animal collapses, it is effectively ‘knocked out’. Stunning is done to prevent the feeling of pain or stress when actually slaughtered. After stunning the animals throat is cut to ensure death. Called thoracic sticking (targeting the brachycephalic trunk near the heart) or exsanguination (cut across the throat targeting main arteries and oesophagus). Once dead the animal’s meat is then processed for sale to consumers as beef.

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Where is stunning legally enforceable? Stunning is not a legal requirement in Australia but is required under standards of operation in Australian facilities. Australian Animal welfare cruelty laws are enforceable under the Animal welfare Act. These are statements of enforceable treatment of animals under a person(s) care or responsiblity. Standards and guidelines are established by Industry, they are not legislated or legal in themselves. Standards are ‘must do’ procedures whose intention is to establish clear principles that must be followed to improve and achieve animal welfare outcomes. Guidelines are simply as their name implies guidelines to best practice, they are referencing to specific circumstances and support the standards. While a standard is not law, failure to comply with it can be punishable by law under the Animal welfare Act.
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In regards to animals processed and the way they are slaughtered in Australia the Australian Standard (AS4696:2007) for slaughter of cattle in Australia states that “An animal that is stuck with, first being stunned and is not rendered unconscious as part of its ritual slaughter is stunned without delay after it is stuck to ensure that it is rendered unconscious”. Meaning that if a beast is not stunned immediately prior to having its throat cut then it must be done immediately after.

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In overseas countries to which Australian animals are processed, the Australian Standards export of Livestock (ASEL) cover the time an animal is sourced from the property of origin to the unloading at a port of delivery in another country, this is the sourcing, transport and delivery aspects of animals who are sold via live export markets. Breaches of ASEL come under the legislation of the Animal welfare Act, Exporter licensing, maritime and quarantine laws to which Australian laws have jurisdiction and reach. ASEL has been in effect since December 2004. The Exporter supply chain assurance system (ESCAS) framework is unique in that it is Australian standards applicable to Australian livestock within another countries legal capacity but is based on conformity to World Organisation for Animal health (OIE) recommendations. OIE do not stipulate a requirement of stunning in livestock slaughter. ESCAS has been in effect since July 2011 for some markets and January 2013 for all. ESCAS doesn’t stipulate stunning must be conducted but it does support its use.
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Prior to ESCAS in Indonesia 5 abattoirs conducted stunning on Australian cattle, they processed approximately 10-15% of the then animals sent to Indonesia. By the end of 2011 there were 70 abattoirs utilising stunning and accounted for 90% of Australian cattle slaughtered. By June 2013 90% of the abattoirs that processed Australian cattle use stunning, yet ESCAS does not make it mandatory that they do this. The implementation of stunning has led to faster and more efficient processing.

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Is stunning necessary? Stunning at slaughter has a number of purposes, the main one is to minimise stress to the animal. The aim is that an animal doesn’t know or feel any pain when its throat is cut. Stunning makes the animal more manageable and can in many cases increase the speed of death and efficiency of the killing of the animal. Minimising the animal movements and increasing handability significantly increases workers safety  because it is not struggling or panicking due to pain, stress or loss of blood. Handling factors prior to death can also affect meat quality due to hormones and adrenaline, a less stressed animal prior to slaughter has better quality meat cuts when processed, thus stunning can minimise the amount of stress hormones the animal may experience during death and achieve a more efficient death and better meat tenderness.

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Examples of stunning.

This is a short video available off the net in regards to non-penetrative stunning

This is a video released by the live export industry in relation to stunning equipment training and  used in facilities  that receive Australian cattle.

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Types of Stunning procedures. Pre Stunning is stunning of the animal before the throat cut and is most commonly used in Australia and overseas abattoirs receiving Australian cattle. Post stunning is done after the throat cut and is performed in Australia. No stunning at all prior or during slaughter is conducted in some overseas abattoirs receiving Australian cattle.

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In the 1970’s it was common in some Australian abattoirs to use a sledgehammer to pre-stun cattle, crude but effective! One solid wack and the animal was unconscious. Hand held devices or knockers have been used for many years now, they were not reliant on an outside power or generator source and as their name suggests, held with one hand, they were light and manuvable. The first installed knockers were literally modified nail guns, these were found to not have the necessary bolt action speed though and  heavier and stronger versions were developed, specifically built for the intended purpose of stunning stock. Guns were used in some facilities but recoil and OH &S was a significant problem, obviously a long range projectile capable of killing bystanders. Many facilities have a stand by knocker, years ago the gun was the standby, particularly for abattoirs that were remote or the animals unusually wild and difficult to manage. for example large bulls and buffalo.

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Prior to large pneumatic systems most knockers used a cartridge driven captive bolt, it was powered by blank cartridges with gunpowder, but no bullet. Heavier cartridges were used for heavier boned animals such as bulls. As Halal slaughter requires a ‘non-penetrating’ stun most of these devices  that did penetrate and were lethal were not suitable. Halal slaughter cattle in Australia were not pre-stunned until the mid-1980’s when electrical stunning and non-penetrative stunning was developed and implemented.

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There are mainly 2 forms of stunning, mechanical and electrical. In this post I’m looking at overseas markets in which mechanical methods are used. These are in 2 forms, captive bolt or a free projectile. A captive bolt stunner is a steel bolt that moves inside a barrel without being able to leave the barrel, it has a mushroom head that hits the skull. Propulsion is via electricity, gas, pneumatic (high pressure air) and cartridge (gun powder). A free projectile is like a bullet from a gun. Captive bolt in a fraction of a second transfers kinetic energy to the skull of the animal by striking its skull very hard and then retracts.  In some cases the stun can cause instant death, others are purposely ‘recoverable’.

1.1 Captive bolt stunning

Source – Beef Cattle Production and Trade. Cottle, Kahn 2014.

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A penetrative stun is where the bolt enters the skull and effectively brain kills the animal instantly, Non-penetrative doesn’t penetrate through the bone and is meant to be a recoverable concussion. The animal is instantly ‘knocked out’ but could theoretically recover if its throat isn’t cut after some period of time. The non-penetrative bolt system is the most commonly used in abattoirs that require Halal slaughter requirements, such as those in Indonesia.

1.2 Indonesia stunning.

Insert – Indonesian abattoir stunning equipment. The stunning equipment is hanging at the top left of the kill box that has its side door currently open.

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Under OIE standards pre stunning of cattle is not a pre requisite of animal welfare requirements. ESCAS is based on OIE. Irrespective of OIE, ESCAS handling guidelines do encourage pre-stunning of animals. Following the June 2011 live export ban the Australian government offered assistance on a 3:1 basis to fund and implement stunning in many facilities. Exporters had to invest $3 for every $1 that they received in grants. Many exporters invested far greater volumes of funds than the $3 to improve infrastructure, equipment and training of personal.

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Installation of stunning equipment was a significant problem in some Indonesian abattoirs due to lack of numbers of animals that they would process. For many who only processed a small number of animals such as 3-10 head the installation of a $20,000 piece of equipment, which is the value of many individual stunners was a significant cost consideration. The installation of stunning equipment was initiated in many ways by the exporters and through their influence has shown how it can initiate better management of cattle and increased safety of workers. Due to these benefits some exporters are assisting importing countries to install stunners for use in their own abattoirs for use on local cattle.

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I think most people would expect me to do my absolute best to look after the animals I have on our property, but recognise that I can’t give a guarantee that I can achieve good animal welfare 100% in every situation. I have similar expectations of exporters who export my cattle, I expect them to do their utmost best at all times, with animal welfare their paramount concern but realise that there will be times when not all animals will have good welfare experiences. Due sometimes to circumstances out of exporters control. I’m not saying these are acceptable reasons for compliance breach but they are going to occur and we need to have understanding how to minimise those occurrences to maximise the effectiveness of ESCAS. Increasing of stunning of cattle in which Australian sourced cattle are sourced for slaughter is a major step in improving animal welfare obligations of the exporters. I applaud those exporters who have taken the steps to ensure stunning is used in their supply chains.

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Training and education is the key to all ESCAS compliance. As animal welfare improvements have evolved and increased within Australia to the high standards we now expect, so will ESCAS. It is pro-active in the improvement and implementation of animal welfare for Australian cattle overseas. I support improvements to ESCAS which includes ability of exporters to be compliant to it by efficiency and cost reduction that will not affect animal welfare outcomes. There is absolutely no point in having a system so overly regulated that it is unable to be compliant in the paper-trial reporting if improvements can be made in these areas.

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Everyone needs money, I make mine producing cattle for their beef production, We choose to sell to live export because fundamentally, that is a financially better proposition than selling to Australian processors and has been the case for many northern producers over the 100 years of live export from Australia. We make the conscientious decision to  sell our cattle to supply chains that have stunning. This is not saying that those who supply lines that don’t use stunning are not ESCAS compliant, it is simply a personal preference of my husband and myself that we prefer our cattle to be stunned prior to slaughter.

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Can I prove that this occurs unequivocally to you? No!

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Have I followed my own cattle through an overseas abattoir? No!

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Therefore you simply have to take my word that every time we sell cattle I try to establish who is buying them, where they are going and ask about their destinations procedures. I then follow that with my own research and as best I can stay up to date on developments and issues surrounding live export of cattle. I do hope to travel overseas and see where our animals are processed for myself; but family and business commitments mean this is very difficult for me to do.

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Some Indonesian abattoirs were not killing efficiently or well that were filmed in late 2010 early 2011, the methods of roping and throat cutting that was conducted prior too, and up to that point were not acceptable. Those incidents highlighted then fell well short of acceptable animal welfare practices. There is no doubt that some animals I have sent in previous years to Indonesia would have had their throats cut without pre-stunning and suffered pain and stress because of poor handling and lack of skills prior to and during slaughter as they died. That saddens me as I know how quiet and well behaved most of our cattle are. My husband and I rate the manageability of our animals as one of our greatest assets, to know our animals were so poorly treated was and still is distressing.

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I aim to provide the future cattle we sell as assured of pre stunning before slaughter as a self imposed animal welfare requirement. Selling to Australian meat processors isn’t financially viable for us for the majority of our cattle sales; I will not destroy our business and families future over issues in live export based on past experiences which are fixable and controllable. I continue to supply cattle to live export because the exporter(s) we deal through strive to meet their obligations and requirements under the ESCAS system. While I see the short comings of the fact that one country (us) can’t regulate legislatively another due to sovereign rights, I believe ESCAS has proven that we can and do initate and promote then direct by implementation high animal welfare standards in other countries.

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There is absolutely no doubt we had to improve the welfare of Australian cattle slaughter processes in some supply chains in importing countries. ESCAS as implemented by the exporters has achieved those improvements. An animal has to die to be eaten, the process of the slaughter is what is significantly important, it must be efficient, effective and most of all induces minimal stress on the animal though obviously causing death.

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Improvements in animal welfare overseas has been by way of co-operation, learning and assistance, we have to keep persevering to improve animal welfare, we’ve lost markets, we’ve upset international relations, and we still have those in the industry that don’t think animal welfare is paramount all the way through a supply chain. Commendably most exporters have significantly improved animal welfare and proved it can be done consistently with long term and on-going results. Animal welfare processes were always adequate in some supply chains in others they were not. Point of slaughter was the main problem with most animal welfare issues, the shipping, transport, feedlotting and handling have always been of a high standard, slaughter through stunning has  significantly increased animal welfare for the animals now sent to live export.

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There are some within the industry that still don’t support ESCAS, they do see the animal as only a legal entity and at point of sale we no longer have responsibility for it in its entirety. That is wrong! While personally I may not be legally responsible for the animal in Australia once I have sold it. I expect that the people I sell to, will adhere to animal welfare standards and guidelines that are best practice for that animal through it entire life. In Live export I have the same expectation by the overarching standards is ASEL and ESCAS. I like the fact that there are now standards in place for exporters from the port of delivery to slaughter, there are guidelines, they know exactly what is required of them and as a producer I expect those requirements to be met. I support ESCAS, I support exporters who abide by ESCAS and believe those that do it well should receive recognition and congratulations for it. I support ESCAS improvements in both efficiency and report capability. ESCAS has to be useable to be most effective, that is a flowing cycle of planning, implementation and monitoring.

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I support significant and severe repercussions to be enforced on those who make repetitive critical breaches of compliance in the one supply chain in regards to ASEL and ESCAS. I believe ESCAS has moved beyond the learning initial implementation stage now, it is well understood and what its requirements are. I support the authorities to significantly fine and withdraw the licences of those exporters who do not show complete commitment to adherence and compliance. If they are given the chance to correct problems and don’t then they should be forcibly removed from that supply line.

I believe stunning has increased animal welfare outcomes for Australian animals even though it has not been a compulsory part of ESCAS, I don’t think it should be made compulsory but do believe it should be encouraged and supported.

Categories: Agriculture laws, Beef Industry, Indonesian abattoirs, Live Exports, pre slaughter stunning, stunning in slaughter | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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