Sinosphere: Gentler Chicken Slaughter? Chinese Province Thinks It’s Worth a Try

Dead chickens at a slaughterhouse in Shanghai. Shandong Province has issued China’s first guidelines for the more humane killing of chickens. Credit Reuters

BEIJING — In its final hours before being butchered, a chicken deserves to be reasonably comfortable and relatively stress-free. This is the message from China’s first official recommendations to the poultry industry, recently issued by Shandong Province, on how to slaughter the animals.

The guidelines, which are not mandatory, are motivated at least as much by commercial considerations as by concerns for animal welfare. Shandong is China’s leading producer of chickens, but traces of damage to the birds, like broken limbs or blood clots in the meat, have hurt exports.

Still, animal welfare advocates are praising the standards.

“Such specific guidelines,” said Jeff Zhou, China representative of Compassion in World Farming, a British organization that campaigns to end factory farming. “I’m very grateful that they did this in Shandong.”

The guidelines, according to People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, list the steps leading to slaughter and detail for each the recommended procedures to ensure that the chicken’s death is as painless as possible.

For example, the guidelines advise against transporting a live chicken longer than three hours. A chicken should be held with both hands, not seized by a single leg or wing. Before being killed, the bird should be anesthetized by being gassed or having its head dipped into electrified water. The guidelines also recommend using a massaging pad to support the chicken’s breast as the birds are moved on an assembly line to be stunned.

Humane slaughter alone does not remove all the cruelty that animals in intensive factory farming experience, Mr. Zhou said, but the guidelines address an important part of it. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

The organization is working with its Chinese partners, including the International Cooperation Committee of Animal Welfare, a government-backed research institute, to push for more humane practices in China and has released similar recommendations for raising, shipping and slaughtering pigs, cattle and sheep.

Although the Shandong guidelines are China’s first for the slaughter of chickens, procedures to reduce animal suffering as well as improve meat quality are being practiced elsewhere and for other farm animals. Major slaughterhouses in Beijing, for example, already stun chickens by dipping their heads into electrified water, according to The Beijing News.

The city of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan, requires slaughterhouses to allow pigs to rest at least 12 hours after being transported to the slaughterhouse before they are killed, according to a 2010 report in Dahe, a local newspaper. Violations carry a penalty of up to 50,000 renminbi, or about $7,500.

In China, where factory farming practices and a lax enforcement of food safety codes have contributed to one food scandal after another, there is a business incentive to treat animals better.

As more slaughterhouses adopt procedures for the humane handling of livestock, Chinese meat may find greater acceptance in high-end markets at home and abroad, said Sun Jingxin, a food science professor at Qingdao Agricultural University and the author of the Shandong guidelines.

With an eye to European consumers concerned about animal welfare, Mr. Sun said of preferred methods for stunning the chickens, “we adopted the high-voltage system used in the E.U., instead of the U.S.-style low-voltage treatment.”

“The E.U. way is considered more humane, even though it may result in lower meat quality,” Mr. Sun said in an interview.

China is the world’s second-leading producer of broiler meat, after the United States, producing 13.4 million tons last year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But it ranked only fifth in exports, with 401,000 tons that year.

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