One of the most commonly held misconceptions about the meat industry is that when an animal is sent to slaughter, he/she is killed instantly or nearly so. Typically, it is assumed that the animals are shot in the head with a powerful enough device that the brain is destroyed, causing immediate death. It is easy to see how this myth could be believed by most people since the public does not want to know what happens in an abattoir and the industry surely isn't going to advertise the truth.
The reality is that the animals are just "stunned" before having their throats cut and eventually dying from the resulting blood loss. In theory, this stunning is supposed to render the animal "insensible to pain" (I will discuss how effective it is below). Stunning is generally done with a "captive bolt gun" (which fires a retractable metal rod into the animal's forehead), electric shock, carbon dioxide, or a small caliber firearm. The goal is to damage the brain just enough to knock the animal unconscious but not kill it.
There are a couple of reasons for stunning instead of using a method powerful enough to destroy the brain and kill the animal relatively instantaneously.
The main reason is that they want the animal's heart to continue beating. Meat quality is affected by the amount of blood left in the carcass so they want the animal bled out as thoroughly as possible. A much more efficient process with the heart still pumping.
Another reason to keep the brain damage to a minimum is in that case of certain cattle. BSE, or Mad Cow Disease, makes it preferable to try to contain brain matter as well as possible.
Unfortunately for the animals, stunning does not always work as well as it is supposed to. The most common reason that slaughter facilities are hit with a USDA humane handling enforcement action is that an inspector witnessed an ineffective stun at the "knock box". The facility may receive a suspension notice for shooting an animal in the head two or more times. (I saw one incident report that detailed an event during which the inspector lost count at 17 shots on one animal) There would undoubtedly be more enforcement actions if the inspectors were at the knock box full time but they are not. They have other duties to perform around the facility.
It is not at all uncommon for animals to suffer through part of the dismemberment process while fully conscious due to improper stunning. This is an excerpt from an interview with a former slaughterhouse worker that Gail Eisnitz did for her book "Slaughterhouse - The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry"
"I've seen beef still alive at the flankers, more often at the 'ears and horns.' That's a long way. I've seen them over where they take the hide off with the down puller. I've heard them moo when people with air knives were trying to take the hide off"
Another worker from a different plant was interviewed for a Washington Post story by Jo Warrick:
"On bad days, he says, dozens of animals reached his station clearly alive and conscious. Some would survive as far as the tail cutter, the belly ripper, the hide puller. "they die," said Moreno, "piece by piece"
Chickens, by far the most numerous animals killed for food, are even more likely to suffer from ineffective stunning. The slaughter of poultry is not covered by the "Humane Methods of Slaughter Act" and is mostly automated. Stunning usually consists of having their heads dragged through an electrified water bath after which they continue down the conveyor to a rotating blade that is supposed to cut their throat. This blade is easily missed which results in the birds going into the scalding tank alive.
There are numerous undercover videos available online that show animals that have not been properly stunned continuing down the conveyor in the slaughterhouse including this one at a beef plant and this one at a "Certified Humane" chicken processing facility.
There is no humane slaughter.
4 August 2019