What if the slaughterhouse came to the farmgate? Interview with Jan Hultgren about mobile slaughter.

Jan Hultgren, SLU.

Jan Hultgren, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, livestock transport is one of the huge challenges for animal welfare. Every day, hundreds of thousands of animals are loaded onto lorries for road transports which may last several hours.

One of the main reasons for transporting animals is to take them to slaughterhouses. A possible implication of your recent CABI Review is that we may not need to transport animals as much as we do now if we made better use of mobile slaughterhouses and on-farm slaughter. Can you tell us more about these approaches?

A major challenge is to produce food in a sustainable way with regard to environmental impact, social cohesion and economy. Sustainability requires fair trade and markets, authenticity of products and consideration for animal welfare, food and occupational safety, as well as waste management. At present, meat from livestock and poultry is severely overproduced and overconsumed in most countries where the population can afford it, which is associated with industrialized animal husbandry and slaughter, negative environmental impacts and public health issues. Unfortunately, retailers mainly compete with low prices, despite the fact that food has never before made up such a small part of consumers’ disposable income. A large number of animals are transported and slaughtered to meet the demand for cheap meat, and despite strict animal welfare legislation in many countries, conditions are often far from perfect. Time constraints for stockpersons, imperfect slaughter-plant designs and rough animal handling result in stress and poor meat quality. Due to urbanization and a change in lifestyle, the gap between producers and consumers is widening, and it is already huge in some parts of society. Many citizens do not know at all how farm animals are kept and how meat is produced, because they only see pre-packaged pieces of meat in the store. Some farmers and slaughterhouses are afraid of criticism from animal rights activists and the transparency of their activities is very limited. Many citizens may not want to know how farm animals are treated, and as a result of how production is organized, they do not even have the chance to learn. Even some farmers do not have the opportunity to see how their animals are treated during transport and slaughter, let alone to influence it. Mobile and small-scale slaughter have the potential to alleviate or solve some of these problems, thus connecting meat producers and consumers, providing access to locally produced meat, stimulating economy in rural areas and reducing the transport of live animals. But for small-scale slaughter to have a significant impact on the meat market, overconsumption will probably also have to be limited. And consumers must be willing to pay for the luxury product that meat is.

Cattle before slaughter at one of the farms under study in Sweden. Photo: Anne Larsen, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

What is the uptake of these technologies like, and what are the main obstacles?

Like any other business, meat production must be profitable in order to survive. There is a great public awareness of the importance of sustainability and animal welfare, which creates a demand. There is also a growing interest in relatively expensive, high-quality meat. Small-scale and low-stress slaughter can thus create added value that producers can benefit from. Nevertheless, some pioneers probably must be willing to take financial risks to develop new technologies and methods as well as good role models for a major change to take place. Today, slaughter alone does not seem to pay off. But if the meat can be marketed as an exclusive high-quality product to a limited consumer segment, it can. There are many examples of small-scale farm-based slaughterhouses for cattle, sheep and pigs that receive slaughter animals from the same farm or nearby holdings. In Sweden, many of these abattoirs have been able to start thanks to advantageously reduced fees for establishment permits and meat inspections, which may not continue. For decades, mobile slaughter of smaller species such as sheep, reindeer and poultry has been practiced in several countries. There are also examples of mobile slaughter of calves, pigs and horses, but mostly for consumption in the farm household. To market the meat, official meat control is required, which can be expensive, especially for small-scale businesses. The political interest in modernized meat inspection is great, and new technology for video-assisted remote control may prove useful, which would reduce inspection costs. Conditions vary between countries due to tradition, consumption patterns and official policies. More recently, as I described in my review, mobile slaughter of large cattle has been developed. Various types of mobile plants for large livestock have now been introduced in many countries, including the United States, Australia and parts of Europe. Some of the methods and techniques used in small-scale and mobile slaughter differ from large-scale stationary slaughter and therefore time is needed for development. The slaughter industry has a long history of development and staff training for large-scale operations, so it is no surprise that small-scale abattoirs are technically and financially challenging.

Is it possible to make an estimate about how much road transport of livestock could realistically be avoided?

Theoretically, all animals could be slaughtered on farm, in that way avoiding all transportation of live slaughter animals. This will not happen, at least not in the foreseeable future. The degree to which transportation can be avoided will of course depend on farming structures, local traditions, consumer preferences, official policies and the extent to which different slaughter methods are found to be reliable and acceptable. As I described in my review, Swedish researchers have estimated that mobile abattoirs may decrease the number of long journeys drastically; five mobile plants would decrease the proportion of Swedish cattle transported for more than 4 hours by 78%, and the proportion of Swedish pigs by 91%. However, these researchers have also shown that new small-scale abattoirs cannot be expected to shorten driving distances or improve animal welfare unless the plants are located strategically. In regions with very small and sparsely located farms, mobile slaughter is less viable. In 2017, a Swedish mobile abattoir slaughtered 4630 large cattle or 1.2% of the Swedish commercial cattle slaughter, operating all over the country. The following year it went out of business due to poor profitability. Many of the methods that together can be termed small-scale slaughter are not always applicable and they will not likely replace industrialized slaughter completely. But they can still mean a lot to many animals and the rural community. It is not only a question of avoiding road transports.