Today Eyes on Animals conducted a follow-up visit to Agri4+ slaughterhouse to observe the slaughter of piglets. We wanted to see what improvements they had put in place since our previous visit, and which of our suggestions they put into practice so far and how stress could be further reduced.
Agri4+ had implemented several improvements since our previous visit, such as sprinkling corn kernels in the waiting pens (as an environmental enrichment, to give the pigs something positive to do and to keep them distracted from fighting), noise reduction through the use of rubber rings on the gates to reduce loud abrupt banging sounds, and the immediate de-bleeding of the pigs as soon as they are stunned, to avoid that any regain consciousness. There are also special individual pens close to the unloading area to house any pigs arriving that appear in poor condition and thus first need to be checked by a NVWA veterinarian. In these pens there is permanent water and food for the pigs.
At Agri4+ pigs are manually stunned with electricity while they are in a group. Pigs feel safer in groups – so this is positive. Because the pigs are not individually restrained however, it is important that the group is kept still so that the manual electric prongs can be placed properly on the individuals. We think there is room for improvement here (the pigs were running around too much due to stress and fear in this pen).We recommended Agri4+ to minimize the stress in the stunning pen by significantly reducing the size of the groups let in at once. We further recommended an ethological restraining technique; a wall with a gate in the middle of the stunning pen that pigs can see through. By placing pigs on both sides, they will be looking at each other and will be less likely to see the employee with the electric stunning prongs approaching. This way a pig can more easily be stunned while unaware of what is about to happen. See the drawing below.
Another alternative is the Willems-Box (a design invented by the owner of Willems slaughterhouse in The Netherlands) with a revolving door and transparent wall in the front (so the pigs do not think there is a dead end). In the Willems Box the pigs can be separated with minimal stress so that the stunning prongs can be placed correctly. We further recommended not to wet the pigs with a water-hose (the pigs get in panic trying to avoid the strong water jet) but to use a water misting system, which is much gentler.
We feel that electrical stunning has the potential to be humane. This in contrast with CO2 stunning, where pigs always experience 20-30 seconds of panic, pain and respiratory distress. If electrical stunning is done correctly, and the trajectory preceding this is developed taking animal behaviour into consideration, it is possible to limit stress to a minimum. Especially in smaller slaughter houses such as Agri4+, where the slaughter speed is slower and there is flexibility to make adjustments. We hope to reach this full potential in collaboration with Agri4+.
It is very positive that Agri4+ started working on improvements right away; in the meantime a new design is ready for the stunning pen. As soon as this is finished we will be invited again by Agri4+ to come and see it. We want to thank Agri4+ for their open attitude and their efforts to improve animal welfare in their slaughterhouse. They are on their way to becoming a slaughterhouse that we think we could recommend for farmers and meat companies that want to produce for welfare labels that guarantee low-fear, better-welfare during the entire life of the pigs, from birth to death.