Stunning pigs: pork, pain and the development of electricity in animal slaughter, 1923-34.
The history of humane slaughter within slaughterhouses in Britain has tended to focus on the 19th and early 20th centuries use of tools in the stunning of animals, around the issue of ‘pistol vs poleaxe’ (or neither, in the case of the Jewish method of slaughter) – a historical narrative that has pitted humane slaughter advocates aiming to triumph over the barbaric poleaxe, versus the butchers, fighting in the face of growing mechanisation. These historical arguments have generally been seen to have led to the eventual introduction of the 1933 Slaughter of Animals Act. Being the first central prescription on animal slaughter in Britain, the 1933 Act required that all cows and calves had to stunned, prior to slaughter, by ‘mechanical means’. 11 years in the making, the earlier Bill had been withdrawn in the mid-1920s, before being re-introduced in 1930 with an added dynamic provided by the attention given to new experiments surrounding the electrical stunning of animals. Pigs were the focus of this new electrical method that had been central to the discussions leading up to 1934.
Against such a backdrop, this paper will disrupt this humane history of pistol vs poleaxe by looking closely at the experiments in electrical stunning conducted and discussed by veterinarians and physiologists from 1927 onwards. Beginning with a look at the 1923 ‘public’ demonstration of slaughtering methods conducted at Birmingham public abattoir – an episode that brought all interested parties together to evaluate the best practices at this time – the paper will place the subsequent development of electrical stunning within this debate by arguing that a space of expertise had been fashioned by veterinarians and physiologists, that was not as simple as a bolstering of the humane movements’ argument. This space saw them to speak to a humane treatment of animals and the meat trade, and also enabling them to enter into a new area of slaughter for veterinarians beyond their ongoing interests in sanitary and meat inspection issues. The mobilisation of a humane argument by such experts, through the application of modern ‘clean’ technology, will be illustrated by looking closely at their specific arguments regarding the pain and consciousness of pigs during slaughter, and their concerns over the quality of pork and ‘splashing’ of meat. It will be argued that although the animals are, arguably, historically present through being integrally related to the development of such modern technology, a specific kind of body was also fashioned during this episode in order to fit the humane technology. This was, in part, achieved by specific, related understandings on electricity, pain, and the animal body as expounded by the veterinarians, and although such methods were never fully adopted – partly for practical reasons, partly moral – their approaches and expertise were instrumental in the final version of 1933 Act and the trajectory that modern slaughter in Britain was to take.