Abattoirs will be forced to ease suffering

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Millions of chickens, turkeys and other animals going through UK abattoirs are to be protected from pain and distress under new laws.

For the first time, the Government intends to use legislation to ensure that animals ending up on dinner plates are stunned and killed correctly.

Until now, welfare in abbatoirs has been based on codes of practice and from the Ministry of Agriculture. But in an interview with The Independent, Elliot Morley, the junior agriculture minister, said he was determined that slaughtering should be carried out under the highest standards.

He will use proposals published by the European Commission last year to enact laws "which try to reduce the suffering and abuse exposed in documentaries, newspaper articles and official reports".

Peter Stevenson, legal and political director of Compassion in World Farming, welcomed the move, but said there was still more the Government could do. More than 700 million birds and 35 million pigs, cattle and sheep are killed each year in UK abbatoirs. Before they are killed, they are supposed to be stunned to avoid any pain while they are bleeding to death. But ineffective stunning can mean animals regain consciousness before they die. This may be because the electrical stun in too short, there is too long a time gap between stunning and throat cutting, or the wrong blood vessels are cut.

Mr Morley's new legislation will mean that, for the first time, minimum electrical currents have to be used for stunning, and both carotid arteries have to be cut, ensuring a rapid death. "Some sections of the poultry industry only cut one artery, and there have been welfare concerns about that," said Mr Morley. "It is important that both carotid arteries are cut after stunning."

Peter Scott, General Secretary of the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers - representing red meat abbatoirs - said his members would support a new law concerning electric stun currents and cutting both carotid vessels. "Where we might have reservations is in the setting of currents which could be required of us."

Evidence suggests that the issue of stun currents needs to be tackled. For example, research by Bristol University scientists suggests that more then 50 per cent of turkeys suffer from painful electric shocks before they are stunned. In 1993, a Ministry of Agriculture abbatoir survey found pigs being stunned with the wrong current and recovering from the stun before they were killed.

About 20 per cent - or 2.5 million animals - are suffocated with carbon dioxide each year, which scientists have found can cause distress. Mr Morley said he will look at alternatives to this.

Another approach which Mr Morley wants to look at is the use of fail- safe devices. These automatically stop the stun if the electrical resistance of an individual animal - because of unusually thick fur for example - means insufficient electrical current is being delivered. "It is now five years since it became law to use these devices in abbatoirs," said Peter Stevens. "The excuse [was] that there was not a good working model on the market then, but now it amounts to a scandal."

Mr Scott said the industry will introduce fail-safe devices developed at Bristol University in collaboration with the Meat and Livestock Commission. "There is a commercial device which is now available."

Meanwhile, Mr Morley will soon have to consider a report on the welfare of laying hens from the Farm Animal Welfare Council. For years, campaigners have said the battery cages used to produce eggs should be banned, and Mr Morley would like to see them phased out.

"But that has to be done across Europe, because it would not be logical for us to wipe out battery cages in the UK and then have our markets taken over by eggs produced in similar cages on the Continent."

Twin campaigns were mounted in Parliament yesterday to end the "extensive suffering" experienced by broiler chickens and to ban the use of battery- hen cages throughout the European Union.

Labour MPs have tabled two Commons motions demanding urgent action to safeguard the welfare of chickens which "are largely unprotected by the law".

One motion says that intensively reared broiler chickens endure extensive suffering by being reared indoors in darkened, overcrowded sheds, and are forced to grow so quickly that their legs often cannot support their bodies.

The killing field

There are 488 abattoirs in Great Britain.

More than 700 million birds and 35 million pigs, cattle and sheep are killed each year in UK abattoirs

More then 50 per cent of turkeys suffer from painful electric shocks before they are stunned

The industry is a major employer. In 1994 more than 110,000 people were directly involved and, despite the recent BSE crisis, the industry still employs almost 100,000.

Various methods are used to stun animals prior to death, including electric shocks and gas chambers.