Shechita – the Jewish religious humane method of animal slaughter for food
What is shechita?
Why is shechita practised?
The Torah (Bible) tells us that God instructed Moses in the laws of shechita, that Jews must only use this humane method of animal slaughter if they are to eat meat.
Is shechita painless?
Yes. Jews believe that God, who is merciful and compassionate would only provide for a merciful and compassionate method of dispatch for his creatures. The Torah is the first systematic legislation which forbids cruelty to animals and mandates that they be treated with consideration and respect. Judaism demands the humane treatment of animals. Shechita has been scientifically shown to be painless because the animal is rendered unconscious by this humane method.
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 an animal. Blood supply to the brain ceases, all consciousness is irreversibly lost and with it the ability to feel pain. It 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?
The Shechita process actually does stun by rendering the animal immediately unconscious, but other methods of stunning, for example by captive-bolt shot into the brain, or by electric shock, or by gas, cause injuries to an animal and delay the slaughter unnecessarily. In order for an animal to be kosher it must be healthy and uninjured. Since shechita is the only permitted way for Jews to obtain meat for food, the other methods are not kosher and render the animal treifah (literally ‘torn’) – it may not be eaten.
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 “stunned” (i.e. rendered unconscious) before they are actually killed. The conventional way this is done is for large animals (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 (i.e. sheep, goats and pigs) are “stunned” by using large electrical calipers which are gripped to the animal’s head passing a voltage through it and 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 is passed a voltage. 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 these mechanical methods outlined above are forbidden in Shechita because they cause injuries to the animal/bird before slaughter which makes it treifa (non-Kosher) and forbidden as food to Jews. 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 on the animal’s neck, it severs the major organs, arteries and veins thereby causing a massive and immediate drop in blood-pressure in the brain. The incision takes a second to perform. The abrupt and dramatic collapse on cerebral perfusion so rapidly effected by Shechita means that the animal is rendered unconscious within a couple of seconds. 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 painlessly and humanely. (To read a more detailed physiological analysis click here.)
Why is the Shechita-stun more humane than mechanical pre-slaughter stunning?
The legal definition of “stunning” in the UK is to “render an animal unconscious until death”. The process of shechita conforms to this legal definition. It achieves what other methods attempt i.e. the immediate and irreversible abolition of consciousness until death. With other methods animals often regain consciousness from the “stun” and are conscious when they are “stuck”. This delay between stunning and sticking (stabbing) has been reported by animal welfare organisations who have recommended that there should be no more than fifteen seconds between the stunning and the sticking, but that is hardly ever achieved. With shechita there is no delay because the slaughter method incorporates an immediate stun. Shechita both stuns and slaughters in one action, thereby making it the most humane and efficient method. Conventional stunning methods or more correctly, pre-stunning methods, have been devised for use in abattoirs concerned with fast and efficient turnaround of production. They are all designed to subdue animals into a manageable state, for the benefit of abattoir operators. Each method of mechanical stunning is flawed, and each method fails to a substantial degree by inflicting pain and distress to millions of so-called “humanely slaughtered” animals. Captive-bolt shooting requires correct positioning of the gun which must be held pressed to the front of the skull. Since the animal’s head is not restrained, it can and does move so the shot is often in the wrong place and the animal must be shot again, sometimes two or three times. This causes great pain to the animal. Sometimes the gun is not properly maintained or the animal isparticularly heavy and the shot does not have sufficient power to damage the brain even though it penetrates the skull. Applying electric callipers or tongs for electric-shock stunning is often not effective due to the variables of position, moisture and humidity, strength of voltage, state of health of the animal, thickness of the hide and wool etc. The stun causes an epileptic seizure in the animal, and rather than anaesthetising it, it merely paralyses it so that it cannot respond to the pain it feels. Electro-shock stunning is used on smaller animals because they are only manually restrained. Because the majority of these sheep and pigs struggle to resist, several shocks are usually applied before the animals fall and lie fitting. Gas-narcosis causes the distress of suffocation and the pain of pulmonary emboli and pneumothorax. And whilst all conventional pre-stunning methods all too frequently fail to induce unconsciousness, they very often kill the weaker animals instead. And the “recoverable stun” simply is a practical impossibility to test on every animal, because as is demonstrated daily in the best operating theatres around the world, many patients fatally succumb to anaesthetics which are individually administered with great care. Gassing always results in a mass kill in a chamber which takes time to fill and is not administered separately to suit each animal.
Why is there opposition to shechita?
There is much misunderstanding and misconception about shechita. Most people who are opposed to shechita simply do not know the facts. There are also those whose opposition has little to do with animal welfare but is motivated by ill-will toward Jews.
Why is the labelling of un-stunned meat so controversial?
There are many who believe that the products of any animals which were not mechanically pre-stunned should be labelled as having come from an animal “not stunned before slaughter”. The legal definition of “stunning” in the UK is to “render an animal unconscious until death”. Shechita is fully compliant with the law and is a most humane unitary method painlessly combining both stun and slaughter in one swift process. The EU’s recommendation for labelling this meat as “not stunned” is discriminatory because a) it suggests that shechita slaughtered meat comes from a non-humane process, and b) there will be no label to indicate how non-kosher meat is slaughtered or if their stunning methods have failed (as they so frequently do).
If there was no option, could Jews eat pre-stunned meat?
No. The only permitted way for Jews to eat kosher meat is to despatch a healthy animal humanely and painlessly by shechita. Other methods cause unnecessary injury and suffering, and needless delay, before slaughter. It would be quite wrong in a democratic and free society to compel anyone to eat meat which did not accord with their religious conscience. If the law was changed to ban shechita, Jews would be deprived of a basic human right, namely, the right to eat meat and poultry prepared according to the requirements of their religion. (See also FAQ above – Why can’t animals be stunned…)
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 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.
Are there health risks to humans from eating meat produced by shechita?
Quite the opposite. Shechita guarantees good quality meat because practically all the blood is drained out making for improved keeping quality. Further, research for the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has shown that use of the captive-bolt stunner on animals infected with BSE can transmit the infected tissue into parts of an animal used in the human food chain. This presents a risk to humans contracting nvCJD because the same unsterilised captive bolt is used on successive animals. Infected tissue was also detected on the hands of operatives and on slaughter equipment. Shechita avoids these hazards and protects human health, and animal welfare.
“Whoever does not see G-d everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.” Kotzker Rebbe