A cow awaits slaughter - There is no definitive scientific evidence that an animal does not feel pain whilst unconscious, according to a 2012 briefing note written for the European Parliament (Shutterstock).

Halal Industry

Halal and non-halal experts work to treat animals humanely – but consciousness at killing remains a concern

Stunning is becoming increasingly controversial in countries with growing Muslim populations as scientists debate whether or not pain is felt during differing slaughter processes.


Halal experts and animal welfare activists around the world are seeking common ground on how to keep and slaughter animals in the most humane ways possible. Halal certification systems that forbid stunning, the process by which animals are rendered unconscious before being bled out at slaughter, is becoming increasingly controversial for countries with growing Muslim populations.

Despite a European Union (EU) regulation allowing non-stun slaughter for religious reasons, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in 2020 that member states could insist on pre-slaughter non-lethal stunning if they wished. These concerns have prompted debates on what actually is the most humane way to kill livestock, and whether pre-stunning does significantly reduce stress in animals.

Halal slaughter rules require livestock to be killed by an accurate cut of the throat with a sharp knife, which "produces minimal behavioural reactions in animals and as a result, the neck cut is not perceived as painful by the animal," wrote Javaid Aziz Awan, from the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), and Muhammad Sohaib, from the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, in Pakistan, in a 2019 paper. The authors added this "ensures maximum bleeding and makes the animal lose consciousness within a few seconds.” (To perform this slaughtering properly, the jugular vein of the neck should be cut to drain all the blood of a live animal and the butcher must invoke Allah's name upon each slaughter. Under Islamic law and halal guidance, livestock should not see the knife nor other animals being slaughtered and should not be denied food before being slaughtered.

Many Muslims prefer slaughter practice without pre-stunning: “We believe our Prophet believes this is the least pain to inflict on the animal,” said Mustafa Farouk, a senior meat scientist at AgResearch Ltd, a New Zealand government-owned livestock focused biological science and development institute. “It is very possible that the animal will not feel pain at all,” he said. A trained Muslim should undertake this work under regular monitoring by a halal competent entity, according to the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) agency .

If a slaughterhouse has relatively small volumes of livestock, and there is no risk of animals being aware of their impending death, the method without stunning is the best if all the conditions are adhered to, Farouk said. However, for industrial processing, reversible stunning is preferred because it protects the workers and the animal, and if the animal ends up not slaughtered, it will still “live a normal animal life,” he explained.

Different interpretations

According to the interpretations of many scholars (although not necessarily halal certification systems), Muslims must treat animals kindly throughout their lives, and therefore many practices allowed in the farming system, such as cutting their ears or tails, are deemed unacceptable, Farouk told Salaam Gateway. These issues have been explored in depth by Sira Abdul Rahman, former Dean, Bangalore Veterinary College, India, in his 2017 paper “Religion and Animal Welfare—An Islamic Perspective.”

Yet the argument that slaughter by knife without stunning can be achieved without pain or stress has been challenged by some scientists. A European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opinion on the main systems of stunning and killing the main commercial species of animals concluded that following a knife cut to the neck, rapid blood loss is felt by the conscious animal causing fear and panic. Distress is also felt when conscious animals inhale blood because of bleeding into the trachea, the EFSA said. “Without stunning, the time between cutting through the major blood vessels and insensibility, as deduced from behavioural and brain response, is up to 20 seconds in sheep, up to 25 seconds in pigs, up to 2 minutes in cattle, up to 2.5 or more minutes in poultry, and sometimes 15 minutes or more in fish,” the report added.

“Religious slaughter without stunning is responsible for major animal welfare problems,” said Peter Stevenson, chief policy advisor at the UK-based Compassion in the World Farming (CIWF) group. During the “prolonged period” between throat cutting and loss of brain responsiveness, animals can suffer extreme pain and distress, he said.

James Russell, senior-vice president at the British Veterinary Association (BVA), said that in some non-stun slaughters, animals are stunned after the cut to make sure “they are unconscious really shortly after that.” Regardless of when stunning takes place, Stevenson said “instant unconsciousness” can be achieved when performed by a properly trained slaughterman and with the correct equipment. 

In some countries, most poultry slaughter is carried out with carbon dioxide gas to induce unconsciousness. This “is not problem-free, but it is much better than the electrical water-bath,” said Russell in a reference to the process by which poultry are hung upside-down and then passed through electrified water. If not done with the right current and electrical frequency, this process can kill or only paralyse birds, which then “remain fully conscious during neck cutting,” Stevenson said.

For Farouk, the main focus should be taking proper care of the animal during its life, which he says may be more important than the question of whether an animal should be stunned at the end of its life. Reversible electric stunning, if done properly – head-only or head-to-body at a high frequency - is preferable, said Farouk. This is because with a captive bolt, “it is very unlikely that the animal will come back” to life, so in effect it has already been killed before their throats are cut.

“Animals subjected to high frequency stunning are less likely to suffer muscle contraction, muscle hemorrhages and broken bones,” according to an academic article he co-wrote in 2014. The scientist added that studies showed animals stunned with gas experience many problems, and thus their recovery “is likely to be very small.”

In another article co-written by Farouk in 2015, the scientist said that stunning is hardly a pleasant experience for livestock. If labels were clear about what they entailed, they would state stunning methods involved penetrating stunning, which cracks and penetrates the skull,or gas stunning, which puts the animal in a gas chamber. For Farouk, hand-slaughtering is better than machine-slaughter for animal welfare, even though he admits that a machine-based system “does a very good job for chicken”.

Read - European rules on butchering tighten, challenging halal sector

Abusive techniques

Regardless of the slaughtering method chosen, “if it is not done properly, any process can be abused,” he concluded. Stevenson agrees, saying many problems in Middle East slaughterhouses are unrelated to a lack of stunning, but arise from “poor pre-slaughter handling practices” particularly with large animals such as cattle and camels. He gave the example of slaughtermen “too frightened to get close enough to cattle” who “simply stab the knife into the neck.”

The activist said many Muslims were “horrified” about such abusive techniques, and that these were certainly not halal methods. The CIWF is keen to “advise halal authorities on how animals could be properly handled,” even without stunning them, Stevenson explained. Most suffering could be “addressed by proper training of slaughterhouse staff on the humane handling of animals,” regardless of the techniques used, he said. “We would be happy to advise Halal authorities on how animals could be properly handled in slaughterhouses, even if they did not wish to stun them.”

BVA’s Russell agreed that continuous training is needed. He suggested CCTVs or body cameras be installed in slaughterhouses to aid management and monitoring. The BVA has been working with halal certification bodies, he added. “We share an absolute desire to see the welfare of the animal protected” and “there is a huge common ground.”

Russell said that the captive bolt stunning applied to the head will more quickly make the animal insensitive to pain than other stunning techniques. This will increase the risk that some animals may be slaughtered while still conscious when slaughterhouses are under pressure with work.

Although studies are needed to improve techniques, Russell noted that there were no failures in stunning procedures in “99.9% of all animals slaughtered in England and Wales abattoirs” from April 2017 until March 2019. Still, improvements are necessary. One suggestion would be stunning poultry “in a way that they don’t need to be inverted” – that is hung upside-down before being gassed or electrocuted.

Avoiding animal stress

Preventing animals seeing others being stunned is “hugely challenging,” according to Russell. He recommends “human handling” and a system under which “animals would want to go in a direction” towards a slaughtering unit, without being pressured.

To avoid animal stress, the British Meat Processors Association’s (BMPA) technical operations director, David Lindars, told Salaam Gateway the solution lies in animal handling before they are stunned. “There are different ways of getting the animals to the stunning point, like the restrainer, which is designed to hold individual animals in the best way for stunning them, or in smaller plants, where they reduce what they call the stunning pen, so the animals are free moving,” Lindars said. Cattle go to a single stunning box, where high voltage or captive bolts are applied.

Lindars calls for guiding an animal into a V-restrainer, a tight-fitting box where livestock is held between the device’s -shaped sides, to avoid chasing the animal around the stunning pen, which causes stress to it. Besides, the V-restrainer doesn’t allow the animal to see others being slaughtered, Lindars explained. “The animal doesn’t know it is going to be stunned, and it is instant,” he said.

But there is still much to learn about animal reactions. There is no definitive scientific evidence that an animal does not feel pain whilst unconscious, according to a 2012 briefing note written for the European Parliament. “Indeed, a counter argument put forward is that stunning may only stop an animal displaying pain,” it added.

Farouk and others wrote in 2016: “Under Islamic spiritual teaching, death in humans is the point when the soul leaves the body.” But they also asked whether animals have “a soul similar to humans” or not. “How to tell when the soul exits the body and death ensues has not been critically examined from the point of industrial slaughter of livestock.”

Such issues highlight the potential conflict between science and religion over how humans legally kill animals. “For the scientist, the humaneness of a practice can likely be determined by examining an animal’s behaviour or brain activity as it occurs,” wrote Yale University Law School doctoral candidate Krislov Zachary in a 2015 paper on tolerating religious slaughter. On the other hand, “for the believer, a practice is apt to be humane insofar as it is commanded by the law God has established for humans.” 

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Andreia Nogueira