It's a slaughterhouse, but not one where there's a great deal of squealing and struggling.
Bathed in melodious music, freshly showered, a row of pigs strolls towards their fate one by one. Their heads are put into special helmets and they are stunned into unconsciousness before killing.
The two-second electric shock gives the pigs no time for fear or distress, and ensures they don't feel any pain during slaughter.
"We call this 'mercy killing,'" said Liu Zhenli, manager of the meat department of the Longda Foodstuff Group Co., Ltd. in east China's Shandong Province, the country's largest prepared foods exporter.
Longda's practice epitomizes a growing trend in China's large-scale slaughterhouses where animal welfare is being given increasing attention. Their welfare is usually interpreted as the right for animals to be free from thirst and hunger, discomfort; pain, injury, and disease; and free from fear and distress as well as being free to behave normally.
The issue is a hot topic at the World Pork Conference being held in Qingdao
Chang Jiwen, a researcher with the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says he believes all practices beneficial to animals could be categorized as "animal welfare."
As China is the world's largest meat producer, humane slaughter is the "easiest and most direct" starting point to promote animal welfare, said Chang, who is a member of an expert team drawing up proposals for the forthcoming Animal Protection Law - the country's first comprehensive legislation to protect animals.
But as animal welfare is still a relatively new topic in China, cruelty does happen from time to time during the delivery of pigs to abattoirs and their slaughtering, he said.
Barrier to meat exports
"Animal welfare has become, in fact, a reason to restrict meat imports from China used by some countries," Chang said.
Last year, China's meat production topped 72.69 million tonnes, accounting for 29 percent of global total output. Exports, however, were only 742,000 tonnes, said Deng Fujiang, vice president of the China Meat Association.
As for pork, the country produced 46 million tonnes in 2008, nearly half of the world' s total, but exported only 142,000 tonnes.
Zhang Yibin, an official with the Shandong Provincial Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau, said more than 100 countries have laws or regulations on animal welfare and World Trade Organization rules also contain relevant riders. Because of not meeting animal welfare standards, China's meat products, except for rabbit and cooked poultry, are barred as exports to the European Union.
Experts at the World Pork Conference say the promotion of animal welfare had become indispensable to sustainable development of China's meat industry.
A program for humane slaughter
Although laws concerning animal welfare are yet to be issued, promotion of humane slaughter started in China two years ago.
In February 2007, a humane slaughter program was jointly initiated by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and Beijing Chaoyang-Anhua Animal Product Safety Research Institute (APSRI). The project aimed to promote rules and standards for humane slaughter and teaching workers how to carry it out.
Until the end of August this year, more than 2,300 people from nearly 950 companies from different parts of China had undergone relevant training, said project head Jia Zili.
Alongside the promotion of animal welfare, humane slaughter equipment makers are finding business much brisker.
Yang Jianhua, general manager of Qingdao Jianhua Food Machinery Manufacture Ltd., said sales of humane slaughter lines in his company this year had recorded a 30 percent increase compared with last year. "I' m very optimistic about the market," he said.
In August last year, "humane slaughter" was officially written into the Commerce Ministry's regulations on the killing of pigs, and a set of technical standards on their humane slaughter was issued in December, said Jia.
First animal protection law in preparation
Chang Jiwen and six other legal experts are adding final touches to proposals for drafting of the country's first legislation on animal welfare - the China Animal Protection Law. Their proposals, to be posted online this month for public submissions, will protect six categories of animals, those on farms, in laboratories, pets, working animals, animals for entertainment purposes, and wild animals, Chang said.
Chang said the draft focused mainly on prevention of animal mistreatment. Although the phrase "animal welfare" was not used in the text, its spirit would be reflected in many provisions.
He said it was not yet time for China to accept a more advanced version similar to those implemented in western countries, as demonstrated by voiced doubts whether the legislation was realistic for China at present.
"It's different from Western laws. For example, we won't require keepers to give dogs shelters as most Chinese can not afford that. Only people who unnecessarily and intentionally abuse animals will be punished."
Chang said at present most animals in China could hardly enjoy all the freedoms animal welfare requires. "But I'm convinced -- along with the enhancement of people's awareness of animal welfare-- laws and regulations in this respect will become more sophisticated and complete."