Photo: Scientists Dr Kiran and Dr Naveena in their lab at the National Research Centre on Meat in Hyderabad, India. Photo supplied by Dr Naveena
The debate over whether animals should be stunned or not before they are slaughtered continues in the halal industry. While some methods of stunning are accepted as halal in many countries, some argue against the practice, saying the chances of animal deaths due to high-voltage stunning make the practice non-compliant with halal guidelines, which specify that the animal should be alive before being slaughtered.
Dr. B.M. Naveena, a Hyderabad-based senior scientist at India’s National Research Centre on Meat (NRCM), has claimed to have developed scientific metrics – the research is at a preliminary stage, he is quick to point out – that determine whether the meat comes from a stunned or non-stunned animal.
In an exclusive interview with Salaam Gateway, Dr. Naveena explained the idea behind the research and how the findings can complement the current halal certification process. The following excerpt from the interview has been edited for accuracy.
Salaam Gateway: What was your motivation for doing this research?
Dr. Naveena: Globally, there is a huge demand for halal products, and it is a billion-dollar industry, but no one is actually aware of any methods or procedures by which we can identify if a particular piece of meat is halal or not.
That’s why we at NRCM, which comes under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), thought of doing some preliminary research to see if we can develop any procedure by which we can say if meat is sourced from a stunned or non-stunned animal.
Why is there a debate around stunning and non-stunning if both are accepted as halal practice?
In the stunning process, the animal is made unconscious before slaughtering so that it does not suffer any pain. There are various methods of stunning such as electrical stunning, carbon dioxide stunning, pneumatic stunning or captive bolt stunning. According to halal guidelines, electric head-only stunning is permitted.
Many countries in Europe and other parts of the world, including India, still follow the practice of slaughtering animals without stunning. Many halal proponents say the animal should be alive, but if you stun, it may not remain alert, or even die, and there could be a possible reduction in blood loss.
What did your research comprise? Which stunning techniques did you employ?
It took us around two years to do this research in collaboration with Dr. Kiran M., a scientist at Karnataka Veterinary Animal and Fisheries Sciences University, and another scientist from National Centre for Cell Science, Pune, where we did the protein analysis.
As part of our preliminary research, we conducted our study on 30 Nellore crossbred male sheep to unravel the effects of pre-slaughter electrical stunning on bleeding efficiency, serum biochemical parameters, physico-chemical quality and understand proteomic changes. [Proteomics is a study of proteins produced in an organism, system, or biological context.]
We tried only electrical stunning wherein the electric current is applied to the forehead of animals so that they become unconscious for around 30 seconds or a minute, within which period we need to slaughter or bleed them.
Globally, there has been a mixed opinion about which process or quality of meat is better. While some researchers say that the meat quality of a stunned animal is good, there are others who believe the opposite.
We hypothesised that, in addition to various physiological changes, the electrophoretic mobility [the movement of particles when an electrical field is applied] of some important proteins will be altered due to pre-slaughter stress. This would help us to make decisions regarding the welfare of the animal before it was slaughtered.
Were there any differences in nutrition values? Were you able to identify whether the meat comes from a stunned animal?
We didn’t find any variation in bleeding efficiency between stunned and non-stunned sheep, but higher pH [potential of Hydrogen – a scale of acidity], water-holding capacity and Warner-Bratzler shear force [a method for measuring meat tenderness] was observed in meat from stunned sheep.
We applied the quantitative proteomic approach to finding a panel of protein markers that could differentiate stunned and non-stunned muscle proteome. The comparison of muscle proteome of these two samples revealed 46 significant differentially expressed proteins.
We also observed that the meat from non-stunned sheep was significantly more tender than stunned sheep because a particular protein called Peroxiredoxin-6, a potential marker of tenderness in meat, was detected in abundance in non-stunned samples.
We think the marker proteins identified in this study may complement the existing halal certification process and increase the consumer’s trust in halal meat.
Is this a first-of-its-kind research?
Yes, people have tried studying differences in meat quality due to stunning and non-stunning slaughter, but no one has tried to identify these proteins. We have also tried to include the level of animal welfare.
What applications in the real world are possible from this? Could this be used for the commercial halal certification purpose?
Our research can potentially address animal welfare, meat quality and halal issues as there are mixed opinions on which one is better. There are a lot of opponents and proponents of both stunned and non-stunned meat. Some say the non-stunning process gives more pain and stress to the animal and it affects the meat quality. Whereas others say stunning reduces the suffering of the animal and the meat quality is superior. So it is still not clear.
We can produce solid evidence whether the meat from the halal (non-stunned) slaughtered animal or the meat from the stunned slaughtered animal is better. We can find out if any particular process gives less or more pain to animals. So these things can be answered.
India is one of the largest exporters of buffalo and other meat. Can your research be useful for the halal meat exporting industry of India?
At this level, we have done only preliminary work. Usually, the importing countries have their own mechanism to understand the process. They have their own people here to supervise the process. Actually, there are very good and established channels for halal meat export in India. But, in the coming days, we think our findings may help them in this process. It will complement the existing halal certification process.
What would be your next step? And what is the time and monetary resources that would be required?
This was preliminary research, which was not funded by any external agencies. Further detailed studies are required in different species with a large group of animals, which consider other pre-slaughter stress factors, which can influence the protein expression level.
We will approach a few funding agencies. We don’t know yet who would be interested in funding this project, but generally speaking, agencies such as the Indian Department of Science and Technology (DST), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), ICAR, or international agencies, halal councils or certifying bodies could be interested.
Normally, such research may cost around 2.5 million to 3 million Indian rupees [$42,768], and take around two to three years to complete.
(Interview by Syed Ameen Kader; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim email@example.com)
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