Nieuws - 15 november 2012

"I was banned from saying anything"

He spent more than 30 years researching the best way to sedate and kill meat animals such as cows, chickens and pigs in an abattoir. Then suddenly the spotlight was on him, when a change of law about ritual slaughter was proposed. 'I was standing with my back to the wall,' says Bert Lambooij. He retires on 1 December.

Bert Lambooij (second from the right): "Not a research topic that goes down well at birthday parties."
It is not a nice subject, Bert Lambooij readily admits. How do we kill our meat animals? Do we shoot them gas them, electrocute them or cut their throats? What is the most humane method, causing the animals the least suffering? This is what Lambooij researched for 33 years, as anonymously as possible, because it is not the sort of subject that goes down well at birthday parties. 'We have never given our research much publicity; people prefer to turn a blind eye and the subject raises emotions. We have also had slaughter researchers who said: we can't do this, we want to stop.'
Lambooij did not find a day of research at the abattoir a cheering experience either. 'You see animals being killed on a mass scale, routinely and purely instrumentally. You have to distance yourself from that emotionally, otherwise you'll go under. That goes for the people who work there too, because you see animals suffering. On the other hand you need to take care that you don't become hardened to it.' So how did Lambooij stick it out? 'You see that there is so much that needs improving and that is your motivation for your research. You want to know whether the animals are in pain. But you can't ask them, so you have to measure it. We did that with brain activity in the animals. That provides an indication of their wellbeing and gives away whether the sedation given before the slaughter is actually working. We also take heart measurements to determine the stress physiology. That is a unique measurement system in the world and other countries are eager to work with us.' Yet Lambooij cannot directly measure wellbeing and pain in the animals. 'Pain is an interpretation. We obtain data that makes it a reasonable assumption that an animal suffers from a particular intervention. And that is where the discussion about animal welfare begins.'
Last year Lambooij suddenly found himself in the limelight when there was a move to ban ritual slaughter in the Netherlands. Lambooij stated in a memo to the ministry of EL&I that animals slaughtered ritually - by cutting their throats - suffer pain as they bleed to death. He was attacked for this by Jewish organizations, his research was discredited by the Dutch research organization TNO, and he - or more precisely, Wageningen UR - was taken to court. How does he look back on all that now?
'I would have liked to respond to all the accusations but I was manoeuvred into a powerless position. Slaughter was suddenly no longer a scientific issue but an emotional-religious issue. Opponents tried to undermine the scientific results with accusations intended to undermine my credibility. The media eagerly joined in that game. Jewish organizations told the press: he is not a real researcher; he works at some small institute - I hear that from journalists who listened to both sides. But there were also journalists who just wrote what they heard - you are dependent on their integrity.' Communication advisors at Wageningen UR advised him against getting mixed up in the discussion. A bit later the legal advisors went so far as to say that he was not permitted to say anything, as the case was now before a judge. 'Meanwhile, the other parties kept the game going in the press,'Lambooij recalls. 'That puts you with your back to the wall.'
But the TNO report in which Lambooij's conclusions were described as 'unscientific' still annoys him. 'Do you know what was remarkable about it? No authors were mentioned on the TNO memo. They attacked me, but I still don't know which staff members at the 'renowned' TNO assessed my report, what their level was. I noticed that they had not understood the setup of my trial - they just didn't get it. But I couldn't respond because of the court case.'
But Lambooij was vindicated in the end. A study by an international project group on ritual slaughter without anaesthetic, Dialrel,  corroborated his findings (with Lambooij as co-author). Secondly, his research was published in the academic journal Meat Science. But the media paid very little attention to it. That is where the feeling of powerlessness comes from, explains Lambooij. He had suffered damage to his reputation but he could not defend himself and in the end there was no public recognition that he had been right.
'It happens to you, and you just have to accept it,' he says now. Could he have gone about things differently, with hindsight? 'No; this was going on a high political level and I could not influence that with solid science-based arguments.'
Lambooij does not make a battle-weary impression. He has to retire but wants to go on working one day a week. As an international authority in the field of slaughter and sedation techniques, he regularly provides advice and runs courses both in the Netherlands and abroad. His colleague Marien Gerritzen is taking over the research. Lambooij: 'We are going to measure the wellbeing of animals during transportation in a European project, and for the ministry we are going to draw up criteria for handling animals before and at the abattoir. It is not just about the slaughter method but about how you treat the animal. Roughly or calmly? Are the animals rushed through the process? I think we should pay more attention to that, in ritual slaughter too. There is too much focus on the throat-cutting, whereas you should evaluate the whole slaughter process ethically.'
Ethical discussion
The rise of the Dutch animal rights party has made it seem as though animal welfare during slaughter has only recently become a social issue. But nothing is further from the truth. The captive bolt pistol was developed in the nineteenth century to ensure a quick death for cattle at abattoirs and prevent unnecessary suffering. Way back in the 11 th century there was a law in Germany requiring that animals be sedated before slaughter. In the Netherlands there has been a law requiring animals to be sedated before slaughter since 1918, and as early as 1938 Lambooij's predecessors established that low voltage electric shocks did not sedate goats enough in abattoirs. Guidelines are becoming more and more stringent. A recent example is the banning of the water bath in which chicken were stunned electrically because the method is thought not to reduce pain enough. Abattoirs have now gone over to sedation with gas or with an electric shock to the head.