What happens at the slaughterhouse?

One of the unavoidable truths about farming is that most animals are killed before their “natural” lifespan is up at the abattoir. Although their time at the slaughterhouse is brief, this is a time that can have significant animal welfare implications, be they good or bad. Rather than shy away from this point I’ve decided this week to look into how animals are slaughtered and the different ways this can be achieved humanely. Although for a vegetarian this might seem strange it matters a lot to me because almost all of the livestock I ever care or contribute to the care of will end its life in an abattoir. This means it’s important to me that slaughter is done right.

As usual, I’ll try to cover what the law requires here in the UK. Abattoirs or “meat establishments” must be licensed by the Food Standards Agency. To become licensed businesses must meet the standards set in a number of EU and UK laws, some of which are concerned with animal welfare and others with sanitary conditions for food preparation.

  • The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015 and its Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts. This replaced the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 (known as WASK). This UK legislation offers animals greater protection than the EC regulation below.
  • Council Regulation (EC) 1099/2009 – Protection of Animals at the Time of Killing
  • EC Regulations 852 – Hygiene of Foodstuffs
  • EC Regulations 853 – Specific Rules – Food of Animal Origin

Individuals who work in abattoirs must qualify for a Certificate of Competence in order to carry out each specific task. At approved slaughterhouses Official Veterinarians ensure welfare laws are obeyed for the FSA. Slaughter outside of approved businesses is still regulated, for example on-farm slaughter, at small scale local suppliers or knacker’s yards. In these settings the Animal Health Veterinary Laboratories Agency and local authority enforce the law.

The next big question I’ll tackle is simply “how to the animals die?”. The answers are species-specific and I’ve used information from the well-respected Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) to write this. Methods do vary but to keep this to a readable length I’ll cover the most common ones.

Cows –  Cattle are restrained in a crush or pen and stunned with a captive bolt pistol or electric current. The unconscious cattle are then shackled to a conveyor by one hind leg. The throat is cut, severing major blood vessels to the brain, and death from blood loss occurs before the animal might regain consciousness.


Pigs – Pigs may be individually restrained on a conveyor or stunned as groups with carbon dioxide. Unconscious pigs die whilst in the gas mixture and are hoisted and bled in the same fashion as cattle. Captive bolt stunning is not usually used for pigs.


Sheep –  Sheep are moved on a single-file conveyor which also provides restraint. Again, electricity or captive bolt pistols can be used to stun sheep. Head-to-back stun-kill refers to use of electricity to kill the animal also. Hoisting and bleeding follow stunning/head-to-back stun-kill.


Polutry –  Chickens, turkeys and other poultry are usually shackled upside down by both legs. The shackles move the birds along a conveyor through a means to achieve unconsciousness and in some cases death, either gas or an electrified water bath. Cutting and bleeding follows, which is the kill method if the earlier stages were set up to stun only.

There are many opportunities for good or bad welfare besides the moments immediately before and during death. I’ve written before about issues with transport of livestock and how this can cause suffering; unloading, handling, any time spent penned up at our outside the abattoir and moving the animals into the processing areas can all be done in both humane and or inhumane ways. In the UK the HSA produce best practice guidelines. Over in the USA, my hero Temple Grandin has done lots of work with the industry to design facilities which cause minimal stress to animals. This has included removing distracting or stressful stimuli from chutes and entryways, hiding “visual cliff” effects and non-slip flooring in unloading areas. Seemingly small changes like these can make huge differences to the welfare of an animal during its final hours.

Of course, anyone with the slightest interest in animal welfare will have seen the shock videos and undercover films made in slaughterhouses. I won’t link to any but they are widely available on YouTube – videos showing overuse of electric prods, extreme physical violence against animals and botched slaughter attempts. This is inexcusable; it clearly needs to be stopped and filming it has made prosecutions possible. But it’s important to remember that it’s not the norm – it’s not legal – and that many people are working with and within the industry to ensure that slaughter happens humanely, in a consistent fashion. Certainly many plants could take note of best practices and improved welfare designs; there are also campaigns to improve welfare protections, such as compulsory CCTV and removing exceptions to the stun before slaughter requirement. But the abattoirs are not all starting out from a position of outright cruelty.

Animals have to die to be given life in the first place. Without the end-life products of livestock – meat, leather, bone, gelatine and a whole host more – farming wouldn’t exist. I know, it would be nice if lambs had more than 8 months to live and if dairy cows reached something closer to their natural lifespan. But we don’t live in that world; besides, the alternative is not all rosy. Natural predation in the wild means creatures simply don’t die of old age. My personal theory is that they don’t have the evolved capacity or intellectual appreciation to understand the infirmity, frailty and vulnerability which elderly captive animals experience. But I do see making animals’ short lives and inevitable deaths comfortable and humane as an achievable goal.

Interesting further reading/viewing:

>>> The obvious:

The Humane Slaughter Association website

Animal Handling.org  “Humane handling is good for livestock… and good for business.”

>>> Interesting finds & related:

Oaklands Pigs Good Abattoir Guide

This website has a great page where smallholders can “review” abattoirs. This seems like a great idea, I think with small scale operations people can really pay attention to what happens to each individual animal (not to imply this is absent on many large farms!) and this allows them to share their experiences. You can tell from the comments how much people care about their animals… samples include: “+ small operation with on site butcher- always treat the animals with care and even tenderness- the old boy who unloaded our pigs last year was fabulous- “come on my beauties” in the gentlest devon voice. long long long bumpy lane is a hassle but otherwise couldn’t recommend it highly enough if you care about how your animals are slaughtered”
“+They try very hard to be as humane as possible and are proud of their skill, and rightly so. I am with my pigs right through the whole process and they give time and consideration to every animal”

“The Science Behind Cattle Ranches” – A  45-minute American documentary about cattle ranching, how technologically advanced it has become and its history with cattle drives and cowboys.

The Glass Walls Project Videos on Youtube – Videos showing how meat production should be done. Although these are produced by the American Meat Institute (so you could argue rose-tinted spectacles) they also feature Temple Grandin, who (as you might have guessed by now) I seriously respect as an advocate and effective campaigner for high standards of livestock welfare.

National Fallen Stock Company – “Fallen stock” is different to slaughter, referring to animals which die on the farm. However, the carcasses must still be disposed of safely and this is regulated by the government also.




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