Welfare of Farmed Animals at Slaughter or Killing

The second report by the UK's Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) on Welfare of Farmed Animals at Slaughter or Killing deals specifically with animals for white meat, namely meat chickens (broilers), laying hens, turkeys, ducks, geese, gamebirds and rabbits. This article is the Executive Summary, with a link to the full report.
calendar icon 21 July 2009
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Principles of Humane Slaughter

Slaughter or killing is the final event in a farm animal’s life. The following principles must be observed if slaughter or killing of poultry or rabbits is to be humane with minimal pain, suffering and distress:

  1. All personnel involved with slaughter or killing must be trained, competent and caring
  2. Only those animals that are fit should be caught, loaded and transported to the slaughterhouse
  3. Any handling of animals prior to slaughter must be done with consideration for the animal’s welfare
  4. In the slaughterhouse, only equipment that is fit for the purpose must be used
  5. Prior to slaughter or killing an animal, either it must be rendered unconscious and insensible to pain instantaneously or unconsciousness must be induced without pain or distress
  6. Animals must not recover consciousness until death ensues.

When assessing an animal’s welfare, FAWC uses the Five Freedoms as guidelines. The Council is particularly concerned about instances of poor welfare, especially the intensity and duration of any suffering. Where there are indications of poor welfare, the more animals that are affected the more serious the problem.

The throughput of many poultry slaughterhouses is high. The necessity of mechanising slaughter to deal with the huge numbers of animals required by the market is not necessarily a welfare issue in itself. However, it is FAWC’s view that this scale can lead to animals being treated as commodities rather than sentient beings.

Catching, Loading and Transport

FAWC has long been convinced that humane catching and loading on the farm before considerate transport to the slaughterhouse are integral to good welfare at slaughter. The Report therefore examines welfare during the various stages of the journey from the farm to the slaughterhouse.

Many people have responsibilities for the welfare of birds up to the moment of slaughter or killing and their responsibilities should be clearly defined and understood.

An assessment of a bird’s fitness to be caught and to travel is crucial. It is clear that birds which cannot stand or walk should be culled on the farm, but any birds that are severely lame and/ or are showing signs of pain should not be loaded. There should be clear guidance for poultry farmers, catching teams and transporters on the fitness to travel of poultry.

Effective training and supervision of catchers are of crucial importance to the welfare of the birds. FAWC has particular concerns about catching and handling of fracture-prone end-of-lay hens.

Animals should be slaughtered as close to the farm as possible. In addition to the journey time being as short as possible, more attention should be paid to the quality of the journey.

Welfare in the Lairage

Responsibility for assessing animals on delivery to the slaughterhouse lies with the slaughterhouse operator, the Official Veterinarian and the Poultry Welfare Officer. If birds are delivered with welfare problems, it should be clear to all involved what action should be taken.

The lairage must be of a suitable size, layout and design to protect birds from adverse environmental conditions and be adequately ventilated. Birds waiting in the lairage or on vehicles should be monitored regularly, and the time spent in the lairage kept to a minimum by careful scheduling.

Live Shackling

Live shackling may cause considerable pain and distress, which are likely to be exacerbated when heavy birds or fracture-prone, end-of-lay hens are shackled. Staff working on the shackle line have a vital welfare role and should be competent and well trained. While improvements to existing systems should be made in the short and medium term, FAWC would welcome the end of pre-slaughter inversion and live shackling in the long term.

Stunning and Killing

Animals are stunned before slaughter to render them insensible to pain and distress during neck cutting and bleeding. The two main methods of rendering birds insensible to pain and distress are electrical stunning, which causes immediate unconsciousness that lasts until death, and controlled atmosphere systems in which the progression to unconsciousness is more prolonged.

The Report addresses the complex nature of both types of system and seeks solutions to concerns about the effectiveness of stunning and the time to insensibility. Recommendations include replacement of constant voltage with constant current electrical stunning to ensure that each bird receives the minimum current for an immediate and lasting stun, as well as the use of sufficient current applied at low frequency to stun and kill birds by inducing cardiac arrest. This delivers certainty that the birds’ welfare cannot be affected after the stun. With regard to controlled atmosphere systems, the Council recommends that gas mixtures used elsewhere in Europe should be allowed in Great Britain; further research and development of controlled atmosphere systems for poultry should be done to develop systems for small slaughterhouses; and slaughterhouse operators should comply with the legal requirement that there is a means of visually monitoring birds that are in the chamber.


The interval between the stun and the neck cut should be as short as possible to ensure that death by loss of blood takes place without any possibility of a return to consciousness. This would be further assured by cutting both carotid arteries, which is considered an essential requirement when stunning methods are used that may enable animals to recover consciousness.

Recommendations are made in the Report for humane culling, private slaughter and slaughter or killing on the farm. The Report also addresses slaughter without pre-stunning.

Mass Killing for Emergency Disease Control

Outbreaks of avian influenza during the study offered the opportunity for FAWC to advise on the welfare implications of mass killing for the purposes of disease control.

Birds caught up in disease outbreaks or restrictions should be viewed as individual sentient beings and must not be subject to avoidable suffering. Contingency plans for disease control must address welfare issues, while allowing for human health considerations. Availability of competent catchers and slaughter teams is essential.

Licensing and Training

The skill and performance of the slaughterman are crucial to good welfare. A slaughterman’s licence issued for life, without re-assessment of competence, is clearly wrong. The Official Veterinarian plays a central part in the licensing system and FAWC is convinced that the training, accreditation and enforcement roles of the Official Veterinarian do not sit comfortably together.

Animal welfare at slaughter must form an integral part of the training of any person working in a slaughterhouse. The role of the Poultry Welfare Officer is crucial to the identification and monitoring of welfare issues; it is essential that this role and its functions are set out clearly and that adequate and accessible training is available.

System of Approval for Slaughterhouse Equipment

Mechanisation of poultry slaughterhouses increases the need for a system of approval for live bird handling and stunning systems and for slaughter equipment. Equipment upon which birds’ welfare depends must be effective for the purpose it is used.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

July 2009

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