The past 20 years have seen many changes in humane handling in the United States. Consumer-driven concerns have evoked such changes as objective animal-handling audits, supplier program requirements for humane handling and regulatory changes in the law governing humane animal handling. This has led to significant change in how meat plants approach animal handling. Changes in plants have led equipment manufacturers to innovate and improve animal-handling equipment, including stunning equipment.

Although not yet regulated by federal directive or law, humane slaughter sensibilities are reaching other species, both here and in other countries. The following are several examples of captive-bolt technology impacting humane slaughter of what are considered by many to be “non-traditional” species.

A challenge in China

Jarvis Products, Middletown, Conn., has been open for business in China since 2000. During that time, McDonald’s suppliers have seen animal-welfare requirements and standards enhanced by the fast-food giant. Chinese meat processors have been forced to examine their operating practices in the area of humane slaughter. This has provided a growing market for Jarvis’ USSS1 pneumatic captive-bolt stunner among Chinese pork and beef processors. Recent growth in this market has also created demand for Jarvis stunning technology for at least one other species: water buffalo.

Meat from water buffalo is popular in China as a stew ingredient meat among other dishes, and is typically processed in limited volumes at small plants supplying fresh meat to local markets. Producing fresh meat without refrigeration requires delivering product to the marketplace each morning. To achieve this, water buffalo must be slaughtered and deboned the night before delivery.

One Jarvis customer built a modern plant to handle larger volumes of water buffalo, up to 400 head per day. In China, the traditional method of killing involved a swift and precise cut to the jugular vein, with death resulting from exsanguination. Knowing the humane requirements from McDonald’s in Chinese beef and pork industries, the company decided to adopt a proactive approach for water buffalo. That’s where John Long and Jarvis’ USSS1 pneumatic stunner came in.

John Long is the general manager of Jarvis’ China operations. He has worked with the Chinese slaughter market since 2005. He recounts: “This company wanted to build a state-of-the art operation. We outfitted the plant with our equipment, including the pneumatic stunner.”

Unfortunately, the first water buffalo trials at the new plant were unsuccessful. “We were unable to render a water buffalo unconscious. So we went back and looked at the anatomy of the head.” Discovering that the skull of the water buffalo is much thicker than that of a steer or a cow, and learning the brain cavity sits a little deeper, “we ended up lengthening the bolt. We were able to add a little over an inch to the stroke of the captive bolt without modifying the housing.”

Vince Volpe, president of Jarvis Products, adds: “We had to be careful; when you lengthen the bolt you change the mass of the bolt, which can affect the speed, which affects the concussive force of the stun. In this case, we were able to make the modification and deliver an effective stun to water buffalos.”

Long concludes by saying, “Our experience with stunning equipment helped us provide a great solution to a customer who is intent on improving the humane slaughter of water buffalo.”

Does Jarvis see their technology transferring to other species? Long says yak and camel are two other species that might present some possibilities, but at this stage it is too soon to tell.

Adding water

Production aquaculture (the farming of aquatic organisms including fish, mollusks and crustaceans) is a big business in the US. While humane slaughter is the law for mammalian and poultry production systems in the US, the waters are a little murkier when it comes to aquaculture production.

In this industry, there has long been a resistance to the precepts of animal welfare in such aquatic life as finfish. This is based on the belief that fish are incapable of experiencing any concept of pain because they lack the neural capability to interpret pain.

In recent years, researchers have further defined the criteria for cognition and consciousness in fish. This has created a growing movement toward acceptance that some fish are able to experience a form of pain and suffering. Areas of the world like the European Union, which includes the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, have adopted aquatic animal-welfare standards. US aquaculture companies that market products to these countries are now faced with decisions about animal-welfare considerations to remain competitive.

Fred Conte, Ph.D., is an Aquaculture Specialist and researcher in animal science at the Univ. of California Davis, and has worked with the aquaculture industry for 39 years. In 2010, he coauthored an article focused on the state of animal welfare in production aquaculture in an article entitled: “Animal Welfare: Growing Factor in International Aquaculture” (Global Aquaculture Alliance magazine, Sept/Oct 2010). His article points to the changing landscape in aquatic farming, and the research he has done using the captive-bolt stunner on sturgeon.

Sturgeon is raised for its caviar and sturgeon meat. The common method for killing sturgeon for processing has been to cut off the tail of the fish and let it bleed out until dead.

Sterling Caviar is a California company that raises and processes sturgeon. Striving to be ahead of the curve on animal-welfare issues, Sterling has taken proactive steps to include humane slaughter in their process. While the current practice is to render 80-plus lb. sturgeon unconscious with a blow to the head using a club, Sterling was interested in exploring more effective methods to improve the process.

Conte was enlisted by Sterling to help with the task. Two years earlier, his research helped identify the correct position on the head to deliver a stun. Based on his research, he sought out Chuck Bildstein with Bunzl’s Processor Division. Bildstein is the North American specialist for the Cash captive-bolt stunner manufactured by Accles and Shelvoke in Great Britain.

Where does one stun a sturgeon? Conte describes the process: “We looked at saggital sections of the head, revealing the brain to determine where to administer the stun. We then looked at the external head morphology related to the brain structure to standardize the positioning of the captive bolt.”

The results of the study were positive. The Cash stunner produced consistently successful stuns when applied at the targeted location. The study results are now in the hands of the Accles and Shelvoke engineers to design a prototype pneumatic stunning system specific to the aquaculture production application.

Looking ahead, Conte believes that the march toward aquaculture welfare standards is inevitable.

“It is not expected that growers will adopt animal-welfare standards based on “warm and fuzzy” feelings. The ultimate reaction and final decisions will be relative to markets, so if not driven by social concerns, they will be driven by economics. This is driven by public perception and attitude, expressed by consumer spending. We have seen this scenario play out and affect markets for other animal agricultural commodities, and aquaculture may be faced with the same challenges.”

Addressing alligators

Like the aquaculture industry, proactive alligator processors are looking at ways to advance animal-welfare issues. Unlike the aquaculture industry, there are no international standards of animal welfare for crocodilian species.

Javier Nevarez is professor of zoological medicine at the Louisiana State Univ. School of Veterinary Medicine, and has been a veterinarian for the alligator industry since 2003. He is currently working on a study focused on humane slaughter in the alligator industry.

Currently, alligators are immobilized by a knife cut that severs the spinal cord just behind the skull. This takes a skilled hand, and is considerably less than 100-percent effective on the first attempt. Less than desirable, it inflicts pain on the gator, and poses an element of risk for the knife operator.

Commenting on the state of the industry and animal welfare, he says “There are no set standards and no previous scientific euthanasia studies in the crocodilian species. The Louisiana alligator industry has been proactive,” studying factors such as the effects of various methods of euthanasia.

Among the methods being studied by Nevarez is the non-penetrating captive-bolt stunner. “We have investigated the use of the captive-bolt stunner as part of a larger study evaluating various euthanasia methods for alligators,” he says. Aided by Bunzl’s Chuck Bildstein, the research is using the Accles and Shelvoke non-penetrating captive-bolt stunner.

Alligators present obstacles in the research including the safety procedures involved with handling alligators. “Alligators are quite strong and agile animals. The main threat for personnel is from potential bites. Only experienced personnel are utilized when working with them,” Nevarez says.

Similar to water buffalo and sturgeon, it was important to understand the morphology of the alligator head to locate the most effective stunning position. The study used CT (computed tomography) along with the experience gained working with alligators to identify the stunning “sweet spot.” “This allowed us to identify consistent landmarks for the correct positioning of the unit,” Nevarez adds.

As the research is ongoing and has not been published, Bildstein reports the testing of the Cash stunner yielded effective stunning and could be used in an alligator production scenario. Whether it becomes the method of choice remains to be seen.

Humane slaughter expands

Mainstream meat production in North America has seen ongoing improvement in the area of animal welfare. Equipment manufacturers like Jarvis, Accles and Shelvoke have responded to the need to effectively stun “first time, every time.” This improved stunning technology is finding a place in humane slaughter in an expanding list of non-traditional species in countries throughout the world.

Conte’s comments echo what is true in a growing number of meat production species: “We have no doubts that concepts of aquatic animal welfare, including humane slaughter, will be adopted by the US aquaculture industry in the future. Market pressures have already influenced the industry to take more proactive steps in this direction.”

There is no doubt the concepts of animal welfare, including humane slaughter, will become a reality among all production animals in countries around the world.