“The biggest threat to animal welfare in slaughterhouses is working conditions”

Researcher Antonio Velarde, head of the animal welfare program at the Institute for Agri-Food Research and Technology (IRTA) and a member of the EFSA commission on health and welfare, is one of the experts responsible for reviewing the animal welfare situation in question. Through various scientific opinions, Velarde, together with an international group of scientists, identified and characterized 40 welfare hazards that could occur during slaughter. Velarde was interviewed by Adeline Marcos for SINC where he talks extensively about this topic.

Question: What is the point of this type of consultation?

Answer: Only public bodies can make the request and do so in order to have a scientific basis for a specific management, such as a revision of the legislation – in this case the one from 2009 – or to have scientific arguments to start before a position with other connotations such as socio-economic or cultural. With these reports we want to establish that scientific basis, so that it can be managed later in an appropriate way, from knowledge.

Q: Despite regulations that ensure the welfare of animals in slaughterhouses, animals suffer during the process. What did they find?

A: The last phase of production, which is transport and the slaughterhouse, is probably one of the most important. The animals have been on the farm all their lives, with specific conditions of feeding and care, a routine and staff under their care, when they are suddenly taken out of their environment that gives them safety and are put in a truck, in a total new environment. They are then taken to the slaughterhouse, mixing them with unknown animals and other people. It is a particularly sensitive time that causes stress in animals. It needs to be regulated to identify the causes that cause welfare problems and thus solve them or at least minimize the impact.

Q: What happens during transportation, for example?

A: Animals do not eat or drink, and their movements are restricted at those times. In addition, the vehicle is moving and is certainly the first time it is inside. If potential hazards can be identified, they can be influenced. This is the idea of ​​the opinion: identify the causes of the discomfort.

Q: But both transportation and arrival at the slaughterhouse are inevitable processes. What alternatives are there to avoid suffering?

A: These factors cannot be eliminated because they are part of the production process, but if they are known, the negative impact they can have can be reduced. For example, we would look for a truck that is adapted to the conditions if we know that it is difficult for them to climb a steep ramp, that they have adequate space in transport, so that they can all rest at the same time and lie down without having to to fight. If we know that more than 18 or 24 hours without food produces the feeling of hunger, we must avoid that they are much longer without food. It is also important for people who care for these animals to know how they perceive the environment and what their behavior is so that they can handle it, reducing stress.

Q: Stress is the biggest suffering in these animals. Have you noticed differences between individuals, ages or genders?

A: Inside the cows, it depends on the previous life they had. Animals that have lived in extensive animal husbandry are more difficult to handle in terms of restricted space or contact with humans when loading them onto the truck. There are also animals that have a physical problem, such as limping or injury, and their movements are compromised. They are more difficult to transport, but the regulations already say that not all people are suitable for transport. An inspection must be made and those who cannot bear the journey – because they cannot travel alone – must not be transported. In these cases, the sacrifice must be made on the farm.

Q: As for the other animals slaughtered, such as birds, rabbits and pigs, the ability to suffer is the same as well, but can there be differences?

A: The ability to suffer is the same in all animals from birds, rabbits, pigs and cattle. They are animals with the ability to have emotions and this is scientifically proven. But because of their behavior or nature, the causes of stress in one species are often different from those of others. For example, pigs are monogastric (simple stomach), which, unlike ruminants, may be more sensitive if transport is long and may be more prone to dizziness in the truck. The pig is also more hierarchical and may have a behavior that can determine the perception of things in a different way. But in the end, the ability to experience emotions and suffer if exposed to a negative environment is similar between species.

P: One of the processes that goes on to avoid the further suffering of these living beings is amazing before death, but this step does not always work, and the animals may still be conscious at that moment. Is that so?

A: At the time of slaughter and bleeding it is an obligation to amaze all animals. They need to be unconscious because holding and cutting causes pain. The unconscious must be generated before stunning and last until the death of the animal. But amazing systems work under certain conditions and it must be borne in mind that these conditions are guaranteed to be effective. That is why we propose that after each stunning it be evaluated whether the animal is unconscious or not. Unconscious indicators are proposed for monitoring. If it is detected at any time that the animal is about to regain consciousness, it must be immediately astonished again so that it does not regain consciousness. Then you need to review the parameters that could have caused the failure.

Q: Besides, what are the main problems or defects that can be found in slaughterhouses?

A: Although they are more and more prepared, a characteristic of the animal’s suffering in the slaughterhouse is that, since it appears before slaughter, any stressful situation or welfare problem will be reflected in the quality of the meat. For example, if unknown animals are mixed up and start fighting and climbing on top of each other, this will defeat them, which will later affect their quality. If I spend a lot of time on the job, it will also cause losses. This impact has made slaughterhouses increasingly concerned and aware, not only of welfare, but also of meat quality.

Q: How can staff handling animals influence their suffering?

A: In addition to slaughterhouse design, staff training has always been a critical point. It is almost the most important. Workers must be trained and have the necessary knowledge to handle animals. The legislation requires a certification of competence to be able to work directly with animals. The problem that is often found is the low salary paid and the rotation of these jobs. This prevents people from consolidating. The biggest threat to the welfare of slaughterhouse animals is temporality and working conditions.

Q: What recommendations have you proposed to improve animal welfare?

Above all, the emphasis is on the design of slaughterhouses that guarantee well-being, for example, that waiting pens are protected against any adverse weather conditions and that the center has ventilation to ensure thermal comfort and rest. Driving corridors must also be adequate in terms of lighting. To this is added the training and education of the staff, that they understand the animals, that they know how they behave, how they perceive (see and hear) the environment … This can help them to have a calmer handling. It is also recommended that, upon arrival at the slaughterhouse, the truck unload the animals quickly and be slaughtered as soon as possible to reduce the time they are in the slaughterhouse. Being a new environment, the slaughterhouse will always produce a stressful situation, even if we do not want to.

Q: Are these measures not taken in any way in the current regulation?

A: Well, they are collected in terms of slaughterhouse design and staff training certificate. The novelty of the opinion, which can help the legislation, is that we tried to look for measures in the animal to help the workers to make decisions. Normally, the requirements of the legislation are based, inter alia, on facilities, environment and temperature. What we are trying to collect here is how the operator can assess whether an animal is cold or hot, if it has difficulty moving, what indicators it may have for unconsciousness, etc. Animal-based measures have been sought because, in the end, welfare is something inherent in it. It is neither in facilities nor in management, the animal is the one who feels it. Therefore, it is necessary to focus more on it.

P: And that he is treated more as a living being than as an object …

A: Yes, we need to recognize the ability of animals to have emotions, but we need to be able to differentiate them from our anthropomorphic feelings. When animals go to the slaughterhouse, they feel stress because the situation is new, but they do not suffer because they know they will die. There is no evidence that animals know it will be their final destination.