Why I can call slaughter "humane"

Wow this turned out to be really long.  Grab a bowl of popcorn cause I’m diving into humane handling headfirst.

RESPECT - that’s what it’s all about.  We’ll explore several levels of standards that guide humane handling of animals - but all are based out of a respect for the animal you are about to kill.  This is not a post about whether or not the meat eaters or the vegetarians are right (but just to be clear, the meat eaters are. so now that that’s settled...)  - the fact is, humans are always going to be eating meat, and slaughter is a necessary part of that.  Your customers can only be confident in the value of the meat if every step of the journey from farm to table encompasses those values.  Bringing the same kind of respect to the animal during slaughter as the farmer did (assuming your farmer has high handling standards) while raising it, will ensure that a responsible and quality product makes it from the farm, to the market, to the table.  

A minimum set of standards for humane handling are required for all meat slaughtered under USDA inspection.  These rules are the least a processing plant needs to follow to be in compliance with inspected meat slaughter.  A result of the Humane Slaughter Act of 1901, these standards basically say that animals must be rendered brain-dead before the bleeding out process, using methods that “prevent needless suffering”.   In 1978, humane handling became mandated, and it was reinvigorated in the 2002 Farm Bill, thanks to some articles bringing lack of enforcement to light and the release of "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser.  Recently, the USDA began communicating separately from the Humane Handling Quarterly Report about which plants are not complying.  Consumers are asking for more transparency and more humane handling emphasis, and FSIS / USDA are attempting to give it to us (see the FY 2011-2016 Strategic Plan).

These minimum standards include providing water to animals in pens, stunning the animal using a certified stunning method, and limiting the use of electric prods.  Certified stunning methods include a captive bolt stunner, CO2 stunning, and electric shock stunning.  These standards are, in my mind, a basic level of humane treatment, the “duh” no-brainer level.  If you are a “foodie”, a “locavore” or any of those hip identities, or just plain care about animal welfare, you should expect more than this when you’re shopping for meat.

The next level is when you get into third party certifications, such as Animal Welfare Approved.  Arepresentative from the organization will come to your plant, and the customer’s farm (can’t be certified without both the farm and plant being certified), and verify that the animal is being raised and treated humanely according to their criteria.  The farmer is then allowed to place the AWA logo on their label.  These programs have a stricter standard of treatment than the USDA, for example counting the occurrences of “vocalization” that animals make throughout the process, as well as evaluating the design of the holding pen and stun pen.  As a consumer, I definitely trust a label with an Animal Welfare Approved certification.

Then there is a level that most slaughterhouses will not ever reach - a term that some people are calling adrenaline-free.  “Adrenaline-free meat” has been killed in the field without the animal ever knowing it’s coming.  Many believe that transportation before slaughter (and the process of entering the facility) stresses the animal out, leading to adrenaline-filled meat that some people allege they can feel and taste when eating (meat-elliers i guess. that’s a wine joke fyi.).  As of now, that’s as humane as it gets, but it’s only possible using a mobile slaughter unit that can handle a carcass in the field under the USDA’s inspection protocol (we’ll dedicate a post to mobile units later).  Most slaughterhouses in the country right now do not have any mobile facilities, but they are gaining popularity as farmers respond to growing requests for adrenaline-free meat.

Well I’m sure you’re thinking “five paragraphs and he hasn’t mentioned Temple Grandin yet?!?”.  There were observations and inklings leading up to the 1978 mandate that handling and stress had something to do with meat quality, but thanks to Dr. Grandin, she has taken these notions and turned them into real procedures for reducing stress.  Not only are her observations and recommendations useful in pre-slaughter handling by employees, but also in design of holding and stun pens.


Some design guidelines that have been developed by Dr. Grandin are intended to help the animal move along on its own instead of needing encouragement.  Using a curved intake, where solid walls curve so that the cow cannot see too far ahead, encourages the cows to move forward along the path.  Cattle tend to move towardPhoto by Jeremy Koslow the light, so we have a light inside the stun pen while the holding pen is covered and dark.  Non-skid flooring helps the animals have sure footing.  Grooves in the concrete in a diamond pattern prevent slipping while not making them balk like with a cattle guard with horizontal grooving.  Eliminating distractions and loud noises keeps a quiet and calm environment as well.

We have designed our infrastructure to create the best atmosphere we can, but the rest relies on the behavior of our employees.  They are trained to use visual queues, which are more effective than physically moving the animal or yelling at them.  We also try and build in more time throughout our slaughter day to accommodate delays when moving animals.  Sometimes small stock, like pigs and sheep, that arrive in groups, like to stay together so we will move them in groups.  Above all, every employee needs to be trained and understand these best practices, so they are used properly and consistently.

Once the animal has been moved from the holding pens to the stun pen the job is not over yet.  Proper stunning is a major part of humane handling.  We use a captive bolt stunner, which is a stunning method that uses a .25 caliber blast cap to project a bolt (think No Country for Old Men) that punctures the brain at a point measured in an X between the eyes and the ears of the head.  At this point the animal is completely brain-dead.  With electric stunning and CO2 stunning, both methods must be performed very accurately as the animal still has a chance to come-to if not done properly.

Photo by Jeremy Koslow

Photo by Jeremy Koslow

Even though stunning renders the animal completely brain-dead, bleeding out the animal is what actually kills it and we don’t waste any time between stunning and bleeding.  Once the animal has dropped from the bolt Josh puts a cartridge into the captive bolt stunner, we hoist it and stick the artery in a matter of seconds.  The stunner keeps the heart beating, which aides in bleeding, but again, the animal has no chance of coming around after proper bolt stunning.  AWA will look for a reasonably short length of time between stun-to-stick.  In some places in Europe, it is required to be 45-60 seconds or less.  At Alleghany Meats, we strive for 15-45 seconds.

These procedures, both USDA regulated and our own above-and-beyond policies, are all intended to minimize the stress on the animal, which in turn creates a respectful place for these animals to die.  I personally believe there is no reason why the policies I employ, that are considered above-and-beyond by the USDA, shouldn’t be the actual minimum that every slaughterhouse must abide by.  It is puzzling to me that what I do is “humane-r handling” than others... to me, it should just be called “the only way to do it”:  calm, clean, quiet, fast, and accurate.  These animals were raised for us and will die for us, and treating them with dignity and respect is the least that we can do to thank them for their service.