The festive season is here, and once again, it is time to make merry, especially for Christians.
However, as people celebrate, food animals in particular sheep, goats, cattle and chickens would be the unhappiest lot.
These animals are normally slaughtered in large numbers, not only in the slaughterhouses but also at homes to provide the much-cherished feast.
People eat meat throughout the year but the meat prepared during Christmas tends to give a special joy to the consumers especially in family settings or among close friends.
As many others, Mike from Juja Farm plans to have a sumptuous Christmas party with his friends. Last week, he told me he keeps cattle on his farm but he does not live there. He plans to hold the party on the farm on Christmas day because the place is bushy and children would enjoy the quiet setting with plenty of playing grounds.
“So what would you like me to do for you?” I inquired when he called me.
He said he wanted to slaughter a young bull and would give the meat to his friends to take home.
“Would you be available to inspect the meat for me to ensure it would be safe for my guests?” Mike asked.
What the Meat Control Act requires
I apologised and informed him I could not inspect the meat. If I did, I would be breaking the law. Mike would also have broken the law by slaughtering the bull on the farm.
I advised him to deliver the bull to a licensed slaughterhouse closest to his farm where the animal would be slaughtered, inspected and the meat stamped if passed for human consumption.
He would then hire a person licensed to carry meat to deliver it to his farm. It would only be then that the meat could be legally presented to his guests as food and he would give them meat packages as take-home Christmas presents.
Well, this is a process that many people would circumvent this festive season.
Hundreds would slaughter animals at home without knowing that they are contravening the Meat Control Act. The law requires all animals, including birds, to only be slaughtered for human consumption in a licensed abattoir.
By slaughtering animals at home or in any other place not licensed as a slaughterhouse, one commits an offence. If apprehended and convicted, one is liable to pay a fine of not more than Sh10,000 or face up to 12 months in jail or both.
When I explained the legal implications of his home slaughter plans, Mike was dumbfounded. Taking the bull to the slaughterhouse, in his opinion, was going to deprive his party of some of the excitement he had anticipated.
Slaughtering animals for friends and family in many African cultures is a sign of generosity and it enhances the host’s social standing.
Attempting to mitigate his desired position, Mike told me he had always slaughtered goats and chicken on the farm but nobody had brought the law to his attention. I retorted he could as well stop now that he knew better.
So why does the government find it necessary to prescribe laws for how people should acquire meat for their household use?
The answer lies in the responsibility to safeguard public health, animal disease control and animal welfare. You see, animals and humans share many diseases that may be transmitted through contact or human consumption of products from infected animals.
Many of you have for instance heard of people reportedly getting sick or dying because of eating uninspected meat. In almost all such situations, the animals have either died at home or they were slaughtered there.
Danger of uninspected meat
Common diseases that may affect humans from uninspected meat include anthrax, beef and pork tape worms and Rift Valley Fever. Animals may appear healthy to the untrained eye, but they may be carrying deadly diseases in their incubation period. This is the period between infection and the appearance of signs of disease.
Meat inspectors are trained to assess a slaughter animal for disease before it is killed, what is called ante-mortem inspection. They then inspect the meat after slaughter in a process called post-mortem inspection. This is different from the well-known post-mortem examination.
When animal slaughter is carried out at the slaughterhouse, the Directorate of Veterinary Services, which is responsible for meat quality control prior to arrival at the butchery, is able to collect data on the disease situation in the areas where the animals come from and also evaluate the effectiveness of treatments routinely given to animals.
For instance, animals found with worms at slaughter would indicate that the treatment given routinely for worms is not effective or the animals were not being treated.
Safeguarding animal welfare
The law also requires animals to be slaughtered in licensed abattoirs to ensure that they are killed with dignity and least suffering. This is part of safeguarding animal welfare. All animals should be made unconscious using the legally prescribed methods before they are slaughtered. Slaughter should also be done out of sight of other animals.
I once saw a goat overpowering two young men who were slaughtering it on a farm. The poor animal bolted with a deep cut on the throat with blood jetting out of the partially severed blood vessels. Such are the situations that comprise unnecessary suffering that may occur in home slaughter situations.
At the end of my phone discussion with Mike, the merits of legal slaughter of his party bull were very clear to him.
However, as I concluded the discussion with the farmer, it occurred to me the section of the Meat Control Act that prohibits home slaughter of animals is difficult to enforce and requires extensive public awareness.
This is the reason home slaughter has become the norm over the years despite the law being in force.
To make matters worse, inadequate availability of meat storage inputs such as electricity and cooling equipment such as refrigerators encourages home slaughter of birds and small food animals.
A father in a remote village, who wants to have chicken for dinner with his family, would practically not take the chicken to the slaughterhouse for slaughter and inspection.
Nevertheless, home slaughter is prohibited for all livestock declared food animals by the Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. These are cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, horses and donkeys in the class of mammals.
Among the birds are chicken, pigeons, geese, ducks, guinea fowls and turkeys.