Halal describes what is lawful for Muslims to eat. Halal food laws are based on interpretation of the Quran, the Muslim scripture, and set out the range of beverages and foods (including meat) that are acceptable for Muslims to eat. The procedures for Halal slaughter can vary from country to country because of the differing interpretations of the Quran.
The main animal welfare concern with halal slaughter is whether or not animals are rendered unconscious (stunned) before they are killed. Halal slaughter in overseas abattoirs often does not include pre-slaughter stunning – this is the key difference between Australia and many other countries.
The vast majority of halal slaughter in Australia (including at export abattoirs) complies with standard slaughter practice where all animals are stunned prior to slaughter. The only difference with halal slaughter is that a reversible stunning method is used, while conventional humane slaughter may use an irreversible stunning method.
The time to regain consciousness following a reversible stun may vary depending on the intensity of the stun. At Australian abattoirs, the aim is to ensure that reversible stunning is done in a way that the depth of unconsciousness is sufficient to allow for the animal to bleed out and die before there is a chance of regaining consciousness. Although reversible stunning is far better from an animal welfare perspective than no stunning at all, irreversible stunning is more effective in inducing unconsciousness than reversible stunning and is therefore the preferred method.
Exemptions from pre-slaughter stunning requirements
A small number of abattoirs in Australia have been granted permission from the relevant State or Territory food authority to conduct religious slaughter without prior stunning – for either Halal or Kosher (Jewish slaughter) purposes. These ‘approvals’ are effectively exemptions to standard Australian slaughter practice and only apply to cattle and sheep. (All Halal slaughter of chickens in Australia includes prior stunning.)
Our understanding (as of 2020) is that there are 9 abattoirs and poultry processors in Australia with approval to conduct slaughter without prior stunning in three different States:
- New South Wales – 2 abattoirs
- South Australia – 3 abattoirs
- Victoria – 4 abattoirs
For cattle and sheep, the requirements for religious slaughter without prior stunning are set out in a nationally adopted guideline Ritual Slaughter for Ovine (Sheep) and Bovine (Cattle):
- For cattle, stunning is still required but this occurs immediately after the throat is cut. Two separate slaughtermen must be present: one to perform the cut (which must sever both the carotid arteries and jugular veins) and one to perform the stunning. The animal must be restrained (including head restraint) in a manner that ensures it remains standing in an upright position and is still during the slaughter process.
- For sheep, stunning is not required except where the animal is distressed or does not rapidly lose consciousness, in which case they must be immediately stunned.
The requirements for cattle and sheep are different because cattle take longer than sheep to lose consciousness as they have an extra blood supply to the brain at the back of the neck running along the vertebrae.
Animal welfare concerns
The RSPCA is concerned there are much greater risks of an animal suffering during slaughter without stunning than for conventional slaughter. Slaughtering an animal while fully conscious requires additional handling and restraint and means that the animal will experience pain associated with the throat cut and subsequent bleeding out. For these reasons, the RSPCA is strongly opposed to all forms of slaughter that do not involve prior stunning of the animal. Where the RSPCA is opposed to a practice we believe is cruel – but not illegal – we engage with the relevant industries and government with the ultimate aim to see an end to the practice.
What you can do to help
It is the state/territory food authority that provides abattoirs with special permission to conduct religious slaughter without prior stunning. If you are opposed to slaughter without prior stunning, please contact the state/territory Minister for Agriculture in NSW, SA and VIC as well as the Federal Minister for Agriculture to make your views known.