In yet another blow to animal agribusiness, the UK animal rights nonprofit Animal Aid recently released video footage taken inside three randomly chosen British slaughterhouses. Between January and June 2009, the group captured scenes using hidden cameras they had installed at JV Richards (Rietfontein) Ltd in Cornwall, AC Hopkins (Taunton) Ltd in Somerset and Pickstock Ashby Ltd in Derbyshire. The abuses depicted are shocking to most viewers, but apparently just another working day for slaughterhouse employees. From some 40 hours of video, Animal Aid compiled a 10-minute clip, which you can see here. Among the scenes are pigs and sheep being kicked, shoved and dragged into the stun room, which was packed with frightened animals. Tormented animals slip, fall and cry out. In one instance, a ewe is stunned and killed while her young is still suckling her. Animal Aid believes that millions of animals across the UK are suffering untold torture inside slaughterhouses, and they are calling on the government to require ongoing training and assessment for all slaughterhouse workers and for cameras to be permanently placed inside slaughterhouses. Kate Fowler, head of campaigns at Animal Aid, says the video disposes of the myth that slaughter in the UK is, or can ever be, humane.
Kate kindly took time to answer some questions about this investigation.
From what I understand, this investigation was inspired by the “humane meat” myth, which seems to be as common in the UK as it is here in the US. Who there is driving the fiction that animals can be raised for meat without suffering?
The insistence that slaughter in the UK is humane comes from a variety of sources. Unsurprisingly, the industry insists that all is well and, as the government’s agencies are supposed to monitor slaughterhouses, they also state that their checks ensure high animal welfare standards in abattoirs. They couldn’t very well tell the truth and admit that animals suffer horrifically and routinely at slaughter because that would be a tacit admission that they are not doing their job properly. Other deniers include celebrity chefs and TV companies who have, in recent months, tried to boost their profile and ratings by showing slaughter on mainstream television. Of course, the slaughter they show is typically a single animal brought into a mocked-up abattoir where time is taken to ensure standards are adhered to and best practice is observed. This is a million miles away from the chaos and terror of real slaughterhouses and gives false assurances to the meat-eating public.
Reading Animal Aid’s lengthy report on this investigation made me sick. What do you see as the most shocking animal welfare violations at the three slaughterhouses?
There are many animal welfare violations that appear to breach the law, but we didn’t set out to reveal illegal practices. What we wanted was to show a typical day in typical slaughterhouses, and the most shocking scenes weren’t necessarily those that breached welfare regulations. The images that haunt me still are of the animals ― particularly the sheep ― in the stun room at two of the slaughterhouses. Their fear was extreme and abundantly apparent: one sheep was so desperate to escape the fate she had already seen her flock mates succumb to, that she leapt through the hatch and into the slaughter area where she landed in the blood pit below her bleeding and shackled mates. Other sheep and pigs ran and ran, looking for any chance to escape. One sheep leapt up the walls while a pig attempted to climb the door. The fear the animals feel is something that cannot be “smoothed away” with increased monitoring ― it is a horrific inevitability in commercial slaughterhouses. Other shocking violations included stunning a ewe while her lamb suckled her, bringing a ewe to slaughter in a wheelbarrow because she was too sick to stand, and almost all pigs at one abattoir being stunned improperly the first time so they suffered electric shocks severe enough to floor them but not powerful enough to render them unconscious. Absolutely shocking.
Why did Animal Aid choose to install a hidden camera in each location rather than send someone in undercover to record slaughterhouse practices?
There are a number of logistical reasons for obtaining the footage the way we did but, most importantly, any person in the stun or slaughter area may change the behavior of other workers around him. We wanted no distractions, no behavior modifications, no excuses for why the workers acted in the way they did. We wanted to see what happens on a typical day ― not what happens when a new “worker” is in the room. The footage we obtained shows genuine slaughterhouse practice, and that can’t be denied.
What has been the response from the meat industry?
Extraordinary. Animal Aid has conducted many investigations over the years, but never have we had so many industry insiders queuing up to offer information about the facilities that they work in! We expected an industry backlash with denials and mud-flinging, and we did get a little of that. But by and large, the industry has thrown its hands up and admitted we did find serious issues. How could they deny it? Now, everyone is blaming someone else: farmers are angry at the way “their” animals are being killed, slaughterers are blaming the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) over its lack of enforcement and the MHS inspectors blame their management for not supporting them. We have certainly shaken things up and we’ll have to see how it all settles. But in the meantime, we are pursuing every avenue that could lead to improvements in the fundamentally flawed slaughter system.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was upset that Animal Aid didn’t report the slaughterhouse abuses to them right away. Why did you release the video evidence to the public before alerting the RSPCA?
Over the years, we have interrupted our investigations (and by so doing increased the risk to our investigators who were still filming inside facilities) to report the most shocking cruelties to the RSPCA. Not only have they never prosecuted on the basis of our evidence, they have publicly given the “all clear” to the farms involved. We even filmed inside an RSPCA-approved chicken farm ― a so-called “Freedom Food” farm, where tens of thousands of birds were crammed into a squalid unit in the same way that “standard” birds are reared. The level of leg and hip deformities in that shed was extreme, and I think it is probably the most shocking chicken farm I have ever seen. Even then, with its own reputation at stake, the RSPCA did not prosecute. I have little faith that the RSPCA would have stepped in to help the animals in the slaughterhouses. But aside from that, I believe what we filmed is typical of slaughterhouses right across the country. It is not the case of a “bad apple” that can be prosecuted and then everything will be well. The problems, the abuses, the suffering, are endemic and inevitable and the RSPCA feeds into that by sanctioning farms and promoting meat consumption.
How does Animal Aid want slaughterhouses or legislators to respond to this investigation?
What we have shown is that the system currently in place does not protect the welfare animals at the time of slaughter ― and there is no way that it could. (And of course, by the very nature of slaughterhouses, it does not protect the rights of animals ― quite the opposite.) The MHS is clearly failing in its role to protect the welfare of animals in abattoirs and that is why CCTV needs to be installed in all slaughterhouses. Even then, it is unlikely that the authorities would agree to release the footage to an independent board who has the welfare of animals as its primary motive. But I believe it would be a good step towards ensuring best practice. And there must be ongoing training and independent assessment for all stun operators and slaughterers. Currently, training and assessment is usually done in-house and there is no re-training or re-assessment ever. I would also like to see people who have violent or sexual convictions barred from working in slaughterhouses.
What can the public do to help?
Their role in eliminating animal suffering is much clearer and is guaranteed to be effective: stop eating them.
For more information about this investigation, and to support the work of Animal Aid, please visit animalaid.org.uk.