How are animals slaughtered in Australia?

Australians care about protecting animals from cruelty. But most of us have never even seen a slaughterhouse. How much do we really know about the life — and death — of animals killed for food in this country?

LAST UPDATED: 24 June 2021

Sir Paul McCartney famously said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, the world would be vegetarian. He understood that humans innately care about other sentient beings and don’t want to see them being harmed. This may also be why we instinctively turn away when passing a truck filled with farmed animals… we know where they’re going and can’t allow ourselves to think too deeply on it.

We want to believe that governments have oversight and that laws will protect them. In fact research commissioned by the Federal Department of Agriculture in 2018 confirmed that Australians do believe this. What many people don’t realise however is that farmed animals have been deliberately excluded from the same laws that protect our pets — allowing outdated practices to continue in the interests of economic efficiency. This legal double-standard was put in place despite the fact that all animals share the capacity to suffer.

It's legal to treat Australian farmed animals in ways that would be criminal cruelty if done to a pet dog or cat.

For most consumers, their only regular ‘interaction’ with farmed animals will be through meat products on supermarket shelves. But these neatly packaged items tell us very little about the experience of these animals leading up to and during the slaughter process.

The reality is that there is no such thing as humane slaughter. That even the ‘best case scenario’ as outlined below, will subject animals to prolonged stress and suffering during transport — and, for some, abject pain and terror at the slaughterhouse.


White chickens hang upside down by leg shackles in a slaughterhouse.

Chickens

The average Australian eats 25 chickens each year – that’s 635 million chickens who are slaughtered for their meat annually. This requires dozens of slaughterhouses to kill millions of birds a day.

For these animals, the ordeal begins the night they are collected from the farm. Sheds can be filled with tens of thousands of chickens. They will be picked up by ‘catchers’ with four to five live birds upside-down in each hand (as the industry standard allows) and shoved into transport crates. The body of a ‘meat’ chicken has been engineered to grow so unnaturally large that their skewed proportions make them more susceptible to injuries during this process which is called ‘de-population’.

The fragile bodies of 'meat' chickens, who have been genetically modified to grow unnaturally fast and large, are susceptible to painful injury during the often-rough handling of catching and transport to slaughter.Birds are shackled upside down and dipped into an electrified stunning bath before their throats are slit and they're scalded in boiling water -- with evidence revealing a disturbing number still conscious at each stage.
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The capturing process is fraught for egg laying hens too, who are normally slaughtered at 18 months of age when their egg production wanes. After over a year of constant egg laying, their bodies are slight and fragile so rough handling during de-population can result in damage to their wings or broken or dislocated hips and legs.

At the slaughterhouse, some birds (‘meat’ chickens) will be placed in Co2-filled chambers and killed or gassed unconscious, before having their throats cut. At many other slaughterhouses, birds may be shackled into ankle cuffs on a conveyor belt while fully conscious. They can be left hanging upside down for several minutes — a position which would cause great pain for animals who have been bred to be as heavy as possible, not to mention that many already suffer from weak and underdeveloped joints, or even broken bones.

From there, the suspended conveyor line moves, and the birds' heads are dipped through an electrified-water stunning bath. The production line moves on, and the birds have their throats cut open by a spinning blade. They're assigned a few minutes to bleed to death before being dunked into scalding tanks of boiling water which are designed to remove their feathers.


But what happens to chickens when the rules fail?

'High throughput' slaughterhouses operate on strict time schedules and, as investigations have revealed, there is often little opportunity — or incentive — to avoid individual animal suffering.

Terrified animals may swing their heads out of the way of the electrified-bath, the mechanical blade and ‘back up’ slaughterman. Others don't fully 'bleed out' in the allotted time. These birds — who aren't dead by the time the conveyor belt they're shackled to reaches the scalding tanks — will be dragged alive into boiling water, as exposed in a shocking investigation by photographer Tamara Kenneally and revealed on the ABC.

Pigs

More than 5 million pigs are killed for their meat in Australia every year. The vast majority of them will spend their final moments gasping for air and some thrashing in terror inside a gas chamber. This is not only legal, but the 'best' method the pig meat industry has come up with to slaughter pigs.

This is how it works: a small group of pigs is herded into a steel cage (called a gondola). The cage is then lowered into a deep chamber filled with carbon dioxide. A carbon dioxide concentration above 30 percent is extremely painful for the pigs; in Australia, the industry standard is between 80 and 90 percent, to have the kill line move as quickly as possible.

As their nostrils, throats and lungs begin to burn from the high intensity of gas, the pigs become distressed. Many scream and struggle for up to thirty seconds until they eventually collapse unconscious. Finally, they are tipped out onto a bench, hung from shackles, and their throats are slit.

For most pigs in Australia, who are raised in factory farms, the first time they see the sky or breathe fresh air is often on the way to the slaughterhouse.Whether factory farmed or free range, though, almost all commercially slaughtered Australian pigs will spend their final moments in a gas chamber 'gondola'.Terrified pigs thrash and scream as they are lowered into a Co2-filled chamber, and their nostrils, throats and lungs start to painfully burn.For highly intelligent and sensitive animals like pigs, the experience of transport and the slaughterhouse would be overwhelming.
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It was in 2014 that the highly distressing routine gassing of pigs was exposed inside Australia’s biggest pig abattoir. Because pigs are highly intelligent and easily distressed, group gassing is claimed to be the most 'humane' method of rendering them unconscious before slaughter. It was well-known that most pigs in Australia were killed this way. What was revealed through this investigation however was that the Australian meat industry standard requires a Co2 concentration at least four times higher than what is scientifically known to avoid distress.

Whether factory farmed or free range, this is how most pigs in Australia are killed.

Incredibly, despite industry promises of reform, little has changed since these shocking practices were exposed. What this means is that while Australian laws require animals to be rendered unconscious prior to slaughter to at least reduce suffering — the routine process of rendering pigs unconscious is one that causes abject pain and, for some pigs, terror.


Some small abattoirs use electrical stunning for younger pigs — placing a device on either side of the pig’s head to send a charge across the brain to induce unconsciousness. Breeding sows and boars who are normally slaughtered at a few years old when their ‘productiveness’ wanes, will usually be subjected to electrical or captive bolt ‘stunning’, before their throats are cut.

Sheep, cows and dairy calves

For most animals, the stress of the slaughter process begins well before they reach the slaughterhouse. This is especially true for sheep and cattle. They can be mustered, yarded, loaded and unloaded (sometimes more than once), and transported hundreds or even thousands of kilometres across the country if saleyard or abattoir prices are better in one state than another.

Australian laws, regulations and monitoring are woefully lacking when it comes to safeguarding the welfare of farmed animals during transport to slaughter.

Legally, these animals can be deprived of food and water for up to 48 hours but for most journeys there is no requirement to record the last time they had access to these basic needs. In some cases, this gap means they could go 3-4 days without eating or drinking and nobody would know.

The situation is equally dire for dairy calves discarded from the dairy industry. These babies – born only to keep their mothers producing milk - will be trucked to a slaughterhouse at just 5 days old and can legally be denied food for up to 30 hours between the last farm milk feed and slaughter at the abattoir.

The stresses of transport and handling accumulate throughout the journey and are further exacerbated upon arrival at the slaughterhouse where animals are surrounded by unfamiliar sights, sounds and other animals outside their normal social groups.


Close up of a cow's upside down and bloodied hoof suspended by a chain in the slaughterhouse.

Once at the slaughterhouse, sheep and cattle will normally be killed within 24 hours. Australian laws require animals to be ‘stunned’ unconscious prior to having their throats cut. For cattle, this is normally done using a device called a ‘captive bolt gun’ which delivers a forceful strike to the forehead to induce unconsciousness. Sheep and dairy calves are mostly subjected to an ‘electrical stunning’ device that sends an electric current across the brain, rendering them unconscious.

This is the fate of a staggering 31 million sheep and 8 million cattle every year in Australia.

What happens to sheep, cows and dairy calves when things go wrong?

Every slaughterhouse is under pressure to kill as many animals as possible in the shortest time.

Inevitably, this rush to push fearful and often resistant animals along the slaughter-line quickly can lead to ‘mistakes’ being made.

The cattle slaughter industry’s permitted re-stunning rate of up to 5% means 5 in every 100 animals (thousands every year) may not be rendered unconscious at the first attempted bolt to the head but a facility would still pass its audit. In sheep slaughter facilities, it is accepted that the electric stunning tongs may be incorrectly applied up to 2% of the time (prolonging the suffering of hundreds of thousands of sheep every year), and again, this would receive a ‘pass’ by auditors. Awaiting re-stunning would be incredibly painful and distressing.

Hundreds of thousands of unwanted dairy calves like him are trucked to slaughter every year in Australia, so their mums' milk can be sold.Sending vulnerable baby animals to factory-style slaughterhouses can also foster illegal cruelty, like these dairy calves suffered at a Northern Victorian slaughterhouse when they were stabbed, hit and burned.Unfamiliar sights, sounds and the confinement and motion of transport are all stressors for animals like sheep.

There is no effective independent monitoring

The vast majority of animals slaughtered in Australia are killed without any effective independent oversight of the way they are treated.

There is also a frightening lack of government oversight in Australian slaughterhouses, especially when you consider that they handle and kill hundreds of millions of vulnerable animals each year. There is no requirement for independently monitored CCTV, and audits are too infrequent and often primarily based on the internal written records of the abattoir.

Time and again, investigations have revealed the risks animals face when no one is watching. And there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that slaughterhouse workers suffer too.

What can I do to help?

When we see meat products in the supermarket, we are seeing only the very end of an individual animal’s journey. To truly comprehend what we are eating — who we are eating — we need to understand the lives they lived and the nature of the death they experienced. Only then can we decide whether to endorse these systems or help create new ones.

Every time you swap an animal-based meal for a plant-based one you’re helping create a new demand, for a new way of living and eating. For a kinder, more sustainable food system. You can start here.

Selected references

[1] Global Animal Slaughter Statistics 2020 Update, Faunalytics

[2] The Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for the Land Transport of Livestock

[3] National Animal Welfare Standards for Livestock Processing Establishments, Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) 2nd Edition 2009.

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