Shechita – the Jewish religious humane method of animal slaughter for food
What is shechita?
Shechita is the Jewish religious humane method of animal slaughter for food. It is the only method of preparing meat and poultry in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Shechita conforms to all norms of animal welfare in the slaughter of animals for food.
Why is shechita practised?
The Torah (Bible) tells us that Jews must only use this humane method of animal slaughter if they are to eat meat.
How is shechita performed?
Shechita is a very swift and efficient procedure. The chalaf (the surgically sharp instrument used) incises the structures at the neck of the animal. Blood supply to the brain ceases immediately, all consciousness is irreversibly lost and, with it, the ability to feel pain. Shechita conforms to UK and EU law, ensures that the animal is not subject to any avoidable pain and is quick, effective and safe.
Who performs shechita?
A Shochet performs shechita. He is highly trained over a number of years in animal anatomy, pathology, the laws of shechita and animal welfare and is examined and licensed every twelve months by the Rabbinical Commission for the Licensing of Shochetim. The Shochet must also be licensed by the local authority where he practises shechita.
Why can't animals be mechanically pre-stunned i.e. before slaughter and still be kosher?
All forms of mechanical stunning, which may include asphyxiation by gas, electrocution by tongs or water or shooting with a captive bolt gun, cause pain on application and are thus prohibited by Jewish law.
Why is mechanical pre-stunning different from the integral stun of shechita?
The law in the UK requires that all animals and birds conventionally slaughtered (i.e. not religious slaughter) for human consumption should be mechanically “stunned” (i.e. rendered unconscious) before they are killed.
The conventional way this is done is for large animals such as cattle to be shot in the head by a steel bolt. This bolt penetrates the skull and injures the brain, with the intention of making the animal unconscious and unable to feel pain. Most commonly, in abattoirs the animal is then hoisted upside-down by shackling a rear-leg. The throat of the animal is then cut and the animal bleeds out until it is dead. This shot to the head is not intended to kill the animal, only to render it unconscious. Death comes from bleeding out, which is the legal definition of “slaughter”.
Smaller animals such as sheep, goats and pigs are “stunned” by gas or by the use of large electrical calipers. The animal is gripped at the head and the calipers pass a voltage through it, giving it an electric shock. The animal’s throat is then cut, or it is stabbed in the thorax, to make it bleed out until it is dead.
Live poultry are shackled upside-down first and then receive an electric shock by immersing their heads in a water-trough through which a voltage is passed. After the birds are shocked, their throats are cut, allowing bleed-out. Sometimes birds and pigs are gassed using a carbon dioxide/argon mix to make them unconscious.
A kosher animal/bird must be healthy and uninjured at the time of shechita. All the mechanical methods outlined above are forbidden in shechita because they cause injuries to the animal or bird before slaughter. It must also be definite that the animal has been slaughtered by shechita alone and its death is not caused by, or in conjunction with, another method.
The law in the UK recognises that these “conventional” stunning methods are not permitted for kosher food and legislates for shechita to be exempted from such stunning, provided the animal is “shechted” by a duly licensed Shochet. When the shechita incision is made it severs the major organs, arteries and veins, thereby causing a massive and immediate drop in blood-pressure in the brain. At the moment that blood-flow to the brain is lost, all awareness ceases and there can be no recovery from unconsciousness. Thus, shechita provides an immediate and irreversible stun and the animal is dispatched humanely.
Why is there opposition to shechita?
There is much misunderstanding and misconception about shechita, which often leads to opposition. There is also a large body of scientific evidence covering the slaughter industry which is largely contradictory and inconclusive. Shechita is supported by an ample body of scientific evidence however, as contrary science exists, there are those who choose to ignore the evidence supporting shechita.
Sadly, as has been seen throughout history, there are also those whose opposition has little to do with animal welfare, but is rather motivated by ill-will toward Jews and/or population control.
What is the Jewish community’s position on labelling?
All kosher food is labelled as kosher to ensure that the Jewish consumer is properly informed. The Jewish community has long made it clear that it supports the notion that consumers have every right to know what they are eating. Indeed, all kosher food is denoted as such with a label or identifying mark. This label is a unique system of food security and is a crucial part of our internal certification process. However, it is extremely important to distinguish between honest, even-handed labelling and what has been proposed by some, which could so easily amount to an inadvertent deception of the consumer and an affront to faith communities.
The current fashionable recommendation for meat labelling is to identify only two categories: ‘stunned’ and ‘unstunned’. This would be inadequate and fails to offer consumers other relevant details. Firstly, shechita contains an integral stun and would need to be labelled as such. Secondly, consumers have the right to know whether an animal has been mechanically stunned prior to slaughter by gassing, electrocution, shot with a captive bolt gun or any of the other approved methods. Similarly, consumers should have the right to know if the animal endured repeated stuns if the first attempt was ineffective as is often the case.
Comprehensive and fair labelling is supported by all faith communities and should be supported by animal welfare groups too, not least because it is the only approach which offers all consumers genuine choice.
Why can't shechita be adapted to account for modern developments in animal slaughter techniques?
The Jewish laws pertaining to shechita are precisely geared to the dictates of animal welfare. Other ‘modern’ methods may serve to assuage the feelings of the observer. Animal welfare organisations and veterinarians have complained continually about the ineffectiveness of other methods and how the animal often regains consciousness while being killed. Often animals have to be re-shot or re-electrocuted because the stun was ineffective first time round, causing unnecessary suffering. Shechita avoids such problems because there are no mechanical or electrical parts to go wrong. Shechita stuns and dispatches in one action, and the manner in which it stuns is irreversible. The laws of shechita may be old, but they are not outmoded.
“Whoever does not see G-d everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.” Kotzker Rebbe