Shechita - the Jewish religious humane method of animal slaughter for food
Shechita Conformity & Confrontation
by Chanoch Kesselman
With the government’s imminent response to the Farm Animal Welfare Council Report of June 2003, the Jewish community in Britain rightly feels the need to know the current situation regarding the continued practice of shechita. Some background history is necessary to put the facts into proper perspective.
The general law of this country requires that animals slaughtered for sale as food to the public, must be stunned before slaughter. Stunning is defined by law as "any process which causes immediate loss of consciousness which lasts until death" In Britain three methods are in use:
- captive-bolt shot to the brain
- electric shock to the brain and/or heart
- gassing an animal by use of carbon dioxide (CO2) or Argon gas
The intention of the stun is not to kill the animal but merely to render it unconscious before the slaughter process, which is either by a throat cut, or a stab to the heart, known as "sticking".
However, there is an exemption to the requirement to stun in the case of…
"…slaughter, without the infliction of unnecessary suffering, by the Jewish method, for the food of Jews by a Jew, who holds a licence…".
This exemption is the pivotal point, though by no means the only point, upon which the future of shechita in Britain rests. The Farm Animal Welfare Council has recommended to the government that the existing law should be changed so that the exemption from stunning for the Jewish method should be removed, and that Jews be compelled to stun all animals and poultry before shechita.
By contrast in the USA, shechita is determined by Federal Law (US Department of Agriculture) to be a humane method and there is no impediment or restriction to its freedom of practice.
FAWC is not the only opponent of shechita. Strong, opposition to shechita comes from animal welfare groups which include the RSPCA, The Humane Slaughter Association, Compassion in World Farming, Animal Aid, The Vegan Society, Vegetarians International Voice for Animals and a number of other fringe animal rights groups. All these groups argue, beyond persuasion otherwise, that shechita is a cruel and barbaric procedure. The basis for their argument is that shechita is performed "on a fully conscious animal that bleeds to death while unnecessarily suffering pain and distress".
One of the “proofs” brought by FAWC is that electro-encephalograph (EEG) readings show electrical activity in the brain of an animal slaughtered by shechita long after the incision. This, they claim is proof that the brain continues to function for three or four minutes after shechita, and that this demonstrates that the animal is alive for this period of time.
Another “proof” brought by the anti-shechita lobby refers to the animal’s brain being supplied by blood via the vertebral arteries (which are not severed during shechita) even after the carotid arteries (the main supply-line of blood to the brain) have been severed. They claim this “post-shechita” supply to the brain, is sufficient to maintain consciousness in an animal for longer than is necessary. If the animal had been stunned in one of the above mentioned ways before shechita, the pain and suffering to the animal would be greatly reduced. That is why, their argument runs, stunning an animal before shechita is in the best interests of animal welfare.
How does the pro-shechita lobby counter these persuasive arguments against the humaneness of shechita? Let us examine the facts. First, it is scientifically established that electrical activity in the brain is not proof of consciousness or even of life itself. A patient undergoing open heart surgery is wired to monitors that measure electrical brain activity but the patient is totally unconscious and oblivious to any awareness of sensation or pain. Further, electrical activity may be recorded in a decapitated head. Such brain activity proves neither consciousness nor sensibility.
Reference has been made above to the argument that after shechita an animal remains conscious due to the vertebral arteries supplying blood to the brain, this is not true. It is well known that in vertebrate mammals, the brain is generously supplied with blood, mostly via the carotid arteries. The junction between the two carotid arteries and the vertebral arteries, forms a 'ring road' at the base of the brain. In cattle this junction is the rete mirabilis. In humans, this arrangement is the 'Circle of Willis'. The effect of having an arterial 'ring road' at the base of the brain is that if there is a blockage of one of the cerebral arteries, the brain region supplied by that vessel can still obtain adequate blood supply via one of the other vessels. However, this is not the case if the carotids are severed. In this case blood flow follows the route of least resistance so that blood which could reach the brain, now spills out from the cut ends of the carotid arteries. The brain is deprived of blood reaching it. Shechita does more than prevent blood from reaching the brain. It also ensures that any blood that is present in the brain empties out via the severed jugular veins at the moment of the incision resulting in immediate loss of pressure in the brain. Additionally the loss of cerebrospinal fluid pressure causes the brain to collapse completely and with it total loss of consciousness. This entire process occurs in less than two seconds. Professor HH Dukes of Cornell University, USA confirmed (in his study of blood pressure in the vertebral arteries of ruminant animals), that “consciousness will have been lost within two seconds of the incision”. This has also been confirmed by experiment by Rabbi Dr IM Levinger of Basel, Switzerland. Dr Stuart Rosen, consultant cardiologist at Hammersmith Hospital, London has extensively researched the subject and confirms these findings in the most up to date study, “Physiological Insights Into Shechita” (2004).
So far as English law is concerned, since enactment of The Slaughter of Animals (Humane Conditions) Regulations 1990, (re-enacted in the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995), shochtim are required by statute (Schedule 12 Part II, reg. 6 (b)) to comply with the definition of shechita to:
"…ensure that each animal is slaughtered by severance, by rapid, uninterrupted movements of a sharp knife, of both its carotid arteries and both its jugular veins."
In view of the preceding we can see that shechita incorporates the most effective “stun”, with the added advantage that this stun is irreversible.
Let us look briefly at the methods of stunning which FAWC wishes to impose on the Jewish community immediately before shechita; methods which cause injury to an animal and render it unconditionally forbidden to Jews as food.
Captive-bolt stunning consists of shooting a steel bolt into the brain of an animal via the forehead. The intention of the shot is to “knock out” the animal. Sometimes more than one shot is administered if the first one is inaccurate. There is evidence that the shot merely paralyses the animal preventing it from reacting to the pain and distress it suffers. The animal remains conscious, the supply of oxygenated blood continues unimpeded to the brain since at this point no incision has yet been made to the animal. Dr Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University USA, has demonstrated that the shot releases large amounts of adrenaline (epinephrine) into the blood stream heightening the “fight or flight” reaction. Adrenaline also has the effect of constricting surface blood vessels thus restricting the outflowing of blood (exsanguination) which is necessary in all slaughter methods. FAWC recognises the importance of rapid bleed-out:
"…In animal welfare terms we consider it good practice to bleed without delay, irrespective of the stunning or killing method employed. The bleeding procedure itself must be correctly carried out to ensure rapid exsanguination". (FAWC Report 2003, p. 36).
The retention of blood in the carcase can cause the meat to putrefy, reducing the "keeping quality" of the meat. Shechita by comparison, ensures rapid and maximum exsanguination, conforming to good animal welfare practice and improving meat quality.
The captive-bolt stunner also carries with it a risk to human health in that the bolt, which penetrates the brain, can spread infective BSE agents from one animal to another since the same unsterilised bolt is used on successive animals at slaughter. These infective agents associated with nvCJD can be passed on to the human food chain through contaminating meat.
FAWC has observed that the interval between "stun-to-sticking" is too long, giving time for the animal to regain consciousness before it is killed:
“Electrical head only stunning of animals is reversible and any delay in bleeding the animal has serious welfare implications. The scientific evidence supports the recommendation that stun to bleed intervals should not exceed 15 seconds. Some slaughterhouses are not able to achieve this.” (FAWC Report 2003, p. 37).
This is not the case with shechita where the animal can never regain consciousness; the shechita stun is irreversible and because there is only one action, a mid-slaughter delay can never occur.
With electrical stunning, electrodes (large electrical tongs) are placed on the animal’s head and an electrical current is passed through the brain to render it unconscious. However, apart from the electric shock equipment not functioning properly, as is often the case, it is doubtful that the shock de-sensitises the animal. The director of Animal Aid is on record as stating that the electric shock “puts the animal on another level of trauma”. FAWC has extensively criticised aspects of electrical stunning in its Report June 2003, paragraphs 163 – 178 and Appendix D.
The sudden impact of electric currents can cause the following injuries: lacerations of the capillaries in the lungs; pathological changes in the central nervous system; a common result is also vertebral fracture. There is a high possibility of error in the positioning of electrodes, variations in voltage, temperature and barometric pressure, ohmic resistance-variables in animals – resistance which depends upon the kind of animal, its size, constitution, state of fatigue, conditions of nourishment, humidity of the skin and humidity of the slaughterhouse. These possibilities for error do not exist in the case of shechita.
The pro-shechita lobby argues with much force that shechita conforms to the statutory definition of stunning in that it is “a process which causes immediate loss of consciousness which lasts until death”.
Until July 1992 animals intended for shechita were restrained in a Weinberg rotary type pen whereby the animal was inverted (cast) and the incision was made from above the neck. This pen was made compulsory at the insistence of the RSPCA in 1958 to improve animal welfare. FAWC recommended to government in its 1985 Report, that the upright or ASPCA (Cincinnati) type pen (where the incision is made from below the neck) be made compulsory and that the Weinberg pen be outlawed. Although, FAWC stated in its 1985 report,
“We are very concerned that the rotary-type pen which was introduced with the purpose of contributing to the welfare of the animal seems in the light of experience and subsequent knowledge, to be having quite the contrary effect. Indeed, we are dissatisfied about the whole concept of inversion of the animal.” (FAWC 1985 Report 262, page 16).
Consequently, FAWC recommended the introduction of the upright pen as being in the best interest of animal welfare. The Campaign for the Protection of Shechita (CPS), in its response to government urged them to reject the introduction of the upright pen with the caveat that just as FAWC were dissatisfied with the rotary pen in the light of “experience and subsequent knowledge”, so they will eventually find reason to be dissatisfied with the upright pen. This prophetic warning has now been realised in FAWC’s latest Report and Recommendations (June 2003) in which they have expressed serious misgivings about the upright pen:
“We are concerned about the effectiveness of restraint and the distress caused to animals that we observed during our visits, particularly when smaller animals were restrained…Restraining pens of this type may cause higher levels of distress than conventional stunning boxes and for a longer period of time. Council would like all restraining pens currently in use to be re-evaluated,” (FAWC Report 2003, page 34)
Yet another area of concern for the Jewish community is the recommendation to label meat which is slaughtered by shechita but which goes for sale onto the general market (the hindquarter and animals found after inspection to be non-kosher). Opponents of shechita have argued that by giving as much information as possible to the public as to the method of slaughter, they will be able to make an “informed choice” when buying meat. This would effectively be putting a “yellow star” on shechita slaughtered meat with the result that the general market may not wish to purchase it, thereby pricing kosher meat exorbitantly high, effectively placing an economic ban on shechita. The government has been made aware that such labelling must not be pejorative to shechita and meat from an animal which was mis-shot or mis-stunned must similarly be labelled, allowing the public to make an “informed choice”. The government has accepted that labelling shechita meat is not in anyone’s interest and they have issued the following statement:
“The Government has considered whether all meat from animals slaughtered without stunning should be labeled as such at the point of retail sale to allow consumers to make a choice. However it believes that it would not be appropriate to single out one method of production or slaughter for such a requirement in isolation. Consumers do have the opportunity to ask their butcher or supplier about the source of their meat”. (Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. DEFRA 2003)
Commenting on shechita, FAWC has stated in its June 2003 "Report on the Welfare of Farmed Animals at Slaughter or Killing" that the evidence against the Jewish method is inconclusive, "It is difficult to measure pain and distress during the slaughter process in an objective scientific manner..." (Paragraph 194 p.34).
FAWC and others like them, recommend that Parliament deprives Jews of their civil liberties to practice their faith in accordance with their religious conscience. Shechita is humane and there is an abundance of scientific evidence to demonstrate that this is so. The anti-shechita lobby have ignored this evidence; neither do they have conclusive scientific evidence to the contrary. “There is a lack of scientific evidence to indicate at which stage in the process of losing consciousness the ability to feel pain ceases” (FAWC Report 262 page 20).
The Government is aware that in the absence of incontrovertible evidence it cannot deprive the Jewish community of its freedom of religious practice and must permit Jewish citizens the continued practice of shechita in Great Britain.
Ó March 2004
Chanoch Kesselman is Vice-President of The Campaign for the Protection of Shechita.
The CPS is incorporated with Shechita UK