MPs sitting on an influential environment committee are considering an investigation after it emerged millions of poultry are being slaughtered without an effective stun.
Around 180 million chickens and other poultry were killed last year using an electric shock vets deem insufficient to guarantee unconsciousness because of a loophole in the law, Government figures suggest.
Experts said the shocking figures called into question Britain’s claim to be a world leader in animal welfare.
Stunning ensures animals are dead or unconscious at the moment their throats are cut, meaning they do not feel pain.
Slaughterhouses can only use stunning methods exempt from EU regulations because of “religious rites”, where animals are not stunned in the usual way because of religious conventions.
But figures show that while 20 per cent of chickens were slaughtered under religious rites rules last year, less than five per cent of the population – followers of Islamic and Jewish law – need to buy meat produced this way.
Kerry McCarthy, who sits on the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, told The Independent she planned to raise the issue as part of an investigation into allegations of malpractice at 2 Sisters, the UK’s biggest food company.
Paul Flynn, who also sits on the committee, said the “very worrying” figures were something he would “certainly” consider raising at future committee meetings.
The shocking figures come as animal welfare has come under increased scrutiny as the UK prepares for Brexit.
Despite Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s insistence Britain could have “higher standards” of animal welfare outside the European Union, in July an influential parliamentary committee warned Brexit could do the opposite.
“The Government’s wish for the UK to become a global leader in free trade is not necessarily compatible with its desire to maintain high animal welfare standards,” the House of Lords subcommittee on EU energy and environment found.
Gudrun Ravetz, senior vice-president of the BVA, said: “This increase in the number of poultry that are not stunned or not stunned effectively before slaughter is a grave concern. Millions of individual animals are affected, making this a major animal welfare issue.”
“The lack of evidence-based parameters for waterbath stunning of poultry means English regulations are simply not for fit for purpose, and could call into question our claim as a leader in high animal welfare.”
Government figures show a massive 91 million poultry were either stunned ineffectively, or not stunned at all because of religious rites between April and September 2017 – and that 180 million chickens, turkeys and other poultry are estimated to have been slaughtered this way over the course of the year.
The only other year for which FSA figures are available, 2015, shows around 167.5 million were killed without effective stunning – though the FSA urged caution when comparing the 2015 and 2017 numbers, saying they were calculated using different methodologies.
According to the FSA, stunning under exemption from EU regulations is “shown by research not to be effective stunning... as it is not possible for an official veterinarian to determine if the bird is effectively stunned or simply immobilised”.
It suggests most poultry slaughtered in this way are not being killed for religious purposes at all, and are suffering avoidably painful deaths.
The British Poultry Council failed to explain why a disproportionate number of chickens were being killed without effective stunning when approached by The Independent.
John Fishwick, president of the BVA, suggested it could be down to a demand from overseas consumers, and big UK retailers who want a “single supply chain solution”, which would bring down costs.
“Figures on the numbers of animals slaughtered without stunning suggest that meat from these animals is outweighing demand and entering the mainstream market,” he said.
“Vets, as an animal welfare focussed profession, believe that people should be able to decide whether or not to eat meat from animals that were not stunned before slaughter.”
He added: “This means people may be eating non-stun meat without being aware they are doing so.”
The Veterinary Policy Research Foundation (VPRF) speculated it could be because non-stun meat can be eaten by religious and non-religious communities alike, whereas stunned meat cannot.
A Peta spokesperson told The Independent: “Every aspect of slaughter is alarming – including the huge numbers of chickens who are improperly stunned and therefore go to the blade and even into the scalding tanks fully conscious.
“They endure agonising pain and die slowly in a terrifying and miserable way. And the final moments of these birds’ lives are just one part of the long and cruel process of modern meat production – from the cramped and filthy cages to the gruelling journeys to the abattoir in all weather extremes.”
It is understood Environment Department is working with the industry in an attempt to work out the reasons behind the figures.
Under Islamic law, most livestock are slaughtered using a type of stunning – called reversible stunning – that ensures the animal is not dead before its throat is cut. Other, stricter interpretations of halal slaughter demand there is no prior stunning at all.
Although the FSA’s figures fail to reveal the number of animals killed without being stunned at all, it is estimated only 10 per cent of Halal meat is produced without any form of stun.
The method used by the Jewish community, Shechita, requires all animals to be conscious at the point of slaughter. Around 70 per cent of all meat produced by the Shechita method is sold on the general market, according to the VPRF.
Shimon Cohen, campaign director for Shechita UK, told The Independent the Shechita process is “humane, efficient and conforms with the EU definition of stunning”.
He said it produced a “proper and effective stun that ensures the animal is instantly insensible to pain followed by death without delay”.
The BVA is pushing for all meat produced using non-stunning methods to be clearly labelled in UK shops so consumers can make an “informed choice” about where their food is coming from.
Asked in the House of Lords earlier this month if the Government would introduce labelling, animal welfare minister Lord Gardiner of Kimble said it would be “considering” the issue “in the context of our departure from the EU”.
But Mr Cohen said labelling which distinguished between stun and non-stun meat could “amount to a deception of the consumer and an affront to faith communities”.
“If we want to ensure true consumer information, they should be told the method of stunning administered; captive bolt shooting, gassing, electrocution by tongs or water or any of the other approved methods.”
A Defra spokesperson told The Independent: “We would prefer to see all animals stunned before they are slaughtered but accept the right of Jewish and Muslim communities to eat meat killed in accordance with their religious beliefs.
“We have no intention of banning religious slaughter. The Government respects religious freedoms and expects the industry, whether food producer or food outlet, to provide consumers with all the information they need to make informed choices.”