Live transport of animals for slaughter: a necessary part of food production, or a cruel and outdated practice?

A key issue in modern animal welfare is the long-distance transport of animals from the farm where they are raised to slaughterhouses. Is this a necessary part of human food production or an outdated, possibly even cruel, practice?

Why are the animals transported?
Animals are commonly transported to move location on a single farm, to be sold or auctioned and for slaughter. Slaughter men or women need to be licensed in the UK if the animal is to be used for commercial products, hence animals are taken to places where licensed individuals work. Abattoirs may also have bulk processing and/or freezing facilities which would not be economically viable on individual farms.

What are the issues with live transport of farm animals?
The RSPCA and Compassion In World Farming (CIWF) both list a number of problems with long-distance transport of livestock. A key problem is unfamiliar surroundings, both the vehicle used, the places they go to, their companions and stress from handling which they may be unaccustomed to. Physical difficulties such as exhaustion, starvation, dehydration and extreme temperatures play an important role, whilst overcrowding can lead to trampling and associated injuries. Stress has been shown to weaken animals’ immune systems, meaning that animals being transported may be more prone to illness. If animals cross borders they may lose the legal protection that was present in their home country. For example, livestock leaving the EU may be slaughtered using methods which were illegal in their home country.

A recent evolutionary analysis in the Guardian takes the slant that the root cause of all these issues is lack of adaptation (traits which make an animal suited to its environment) of livestock to a transportation environment. Although many livestock species domesticated for thousands of years, they evolved for far longer to use their stress responses and social behaviours to survive in wild habitats. Selective breeding has chosen specimens who do well in captivity and carry desirable traits such as high milk yield in dairy cows, but it hasn’t removed behaviours which are maladaptive during transport or produced new traits which make animals suited to being transported.

What does the law say?
In this part of the post we’ll look at UK laws as this is where I live and hope to work. I’ll revisit international issues in a future blog post.

The website states categorically that “Farmers have a legal responsibility to ensure their animals are transported in a way that won’t cause injury or unnecessary suffering to them.” The specific laws differ for different types of animal and different journey lengths. For example, the regulations around equine transport cover using halters and providing individual stalls, whilst those for other species do not. Most species enjoy special protection for animals which are pregnant or have recently given birth. Horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and goats have legally mandated maximum journey times and rest periods, such as eight hours in a “basic standard vehicle” or fourteen in a “higher standard vehicle” for adult cattle. However this type of regulation is not extended to poultry.

Besides the issue of whether the law is stringent enough, issues remain when the law is broken or animals leave the UK for places with poorer legal protection. There are numerous claims of instances when the laws have been ignored – for example, lone piglets found at the roadside in Norfolk is thought to be a result of sows farrowing on a lorry. Whether or not we decide that live transport is necessary and fair or not, failing to meet existing legal requirements is clearly an issue which needs to be tackled by increased enforcement.

What can be done to avoid livestock suffering during transport?
The RSPCA believes the answer to be a carcass-only trade, where animals must be slaughtered prior to long distance transport. It’s difficult to unravel the economic implications of this. Slaughter would have to be carried out on-farm by licensed person, but this could be done with a Modular Harvest System as seen in the USA. The costs incurred would involve bringing the MHS to the farm rather than the animals to the abattoir. It’s possible that this would save money as there are a variety of authorisations and trainings needed for individual to transport livestock; however, refrigerated transport of carcasses may incur other costs. If the RSPCA produced a favourable economic analysis this may garner support for their carcass-only argument.

Other options may include altering the regulations to reduce journey times further, improve the standards of vehicles used for transport or expand specific protections to cover more commonly-transported species. Besides their ultimate aim of a carcass-only trade, the RPSCA are campaigning to extend 8-hour journey limits across Europe and transfer the costs of inspections, emergency veterinary treatment and veterinary facilities to the hauliers rather than the taxpayers.

What are the obstacles to change?
Previous petitions to parliament with the aim of banning live animal exports have been met with a legal challenge. Livestock is classed as a type of goods and to ban a trade in legal goods would undermine the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. A recent petition to the coalition government with over 10,000 signatures was dismissed with this response, so future campaigning efforts will have to show initiative in overcoming this or finding another way to protect livestock, such as providing a special classification of goods.

So should we transport live animals long distances to slaughter?
In an ideal world, animals would not endure conditions to which they are poorly adapted. Commercial farms can be made humane environments but this becomes increasingly difficult when unfamiliar situations, physical changes and moving vehicles are brought onto the table. It’s a decision for the individual, but my personal feeling is that we should be doing more and campaigning for other countries to bring their standards up to the same level as the UK.

If you’re of a similar mind set, there are a couple of actions you can take to try and reduce animal suffering during transport or avoid buying animal products from transported livestock origins:

  • The RSPCA’s current petition to end live exports of animals from the UK requires ONLY 13 more signatures to reach its 50,000 target. Get in there and be the change! Although previous petitions have been rejected, this one has a much larger support base and you can only hope that repeating the message will make it clearer how many people consider this a real issue.
  • Contact your local MP or MEP and let them know your stance on subject – they exist to represent you (or so we have to believe). Although banning export is not on any nearby horizon, you could tell them how you feel about maximum transport times or highlight how animals differ from other “goods”.
  • You can buy meat and animal products labelled with the RSPCA Assured standard (formerly known as Freedom Food) to be sure that the animals were kept (and transported) in accordance with improved welfare standards.
  • If you have some spare cash you could donate to the RSPCA or CIWF to help them campaign against inhumane transportation conditions.
  • Pass this message on to your friends and family, or campaign in your local area!

Thanks for reading the Lost Biologist blog, I hope you’ve found it interesting and maybe learned something new! If you’ve spotted any inaccuracies or want to add to the discussion, please comment below.

Update: Since writing this, I’ve come to understand a lot more about how animals are slaughtered and how their welfare is protected. In the UK, on-farm slaughter is not a legal method apart from under specific circumstances e.g. emergency slaughter of a cow with a broken leg. You can find out more in this Food Standards Agency booklet. However, I still think more can be done to protect animals from the stress and suffering caused in some transport situations.


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