The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is set to deliver animal welfare guidance by November to help European Union (EU) member states assess the compliance of their slaughterhouses with EU animal welfare rules in effect since the beginning of the year.
This will include the awareness of indicators designed to prove whether an animal is unconscious or dead: a faulty assessment could bring intense suffering to an animal in the slaughterhouse, if it was aware of its surroundings.
This follows a request by the European Commission for indicators of death or unconsciousness brought by the most common stunning methods such as penetrative captive bolts for bovines, head-only electrical stunning for pigs, sheep and goats, and electrical water-baths for chicken and turkeys. Brussels has also requested that EFSA to deliver detailed guidance on indicators showing animals do not suffer during slaughter without stunning.
According to Hans Spoolder, leader of the research group on animal welfare and behaviour at the Wageningen UR Livestock Research in the Netherlands, the indicators would have to be sensitive enough to ensure that the animal is indeed unconscious after having been stunned.
“If the animal is conscious but the indicator says it’s unconscious, we have a welfare problem,” Spoolder said at a meeting on the issue organised by EFSA in Parma on January 30. Indicators of unconsciousness in stunned animals can be for example the animal’s immediate collapse, fixed eyes and dilated pupils and loss of muscle tone in ears and jaws.
To establish the indicators, EFSA will send questionnaires to stunning and killing operators, welfare officer operators and official veterinarians at slaughterhouses. They will be asked to assess the effectiveness of a number of unconsciousness and death indicators that could then be applied at European level in ensuring the stunning methods do work and animals are not exposed to unnecessary suffering.