Cows beaten with electric prods and pigs cut while still alive, secret cameras show

Brutality at small, independent slaughterhouse prompts call for government to halt plan to subsidise abattoirs

Jane Dalton
Saturday 10 July 2021 15:29
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Activists call for regulations to be reviewed after CCTV in abattoir failed to prevent cruelty

Cows were beaten with electric prods and sheep and pigs were not stunned for long enough before having their throats cut at a government-approved small abattoir, according to an undercover investigation.

A piglet appeared to be alive in a scalding hot water tank, and others were thrown into the tank with no checks for signs of life.

The Animal Justice Project (AJP) organisation, which carried out the two-month research, is calling on the government to halt plans to use public money to subsidise slaughterhouses under the new Agriculture Act, and for an independent review of abattoirs.

Ministers want to support local abattoirs after many closed in recent years.

The hidden cameras at family-owned G & GB Hewitt in Cheshire captured 200 hours of footage that AJP says reveal shocking animal abuse and suffering, extensive breaches of the law and a failure of a government vet to prevent cruelty.

But a meat industry spokesman cast doubt on the claims, saying animals can move, appearing to be alive, even after they have died.

The government’s food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), has deemed the slaughterhouse “generally satisfactory” in audits over the past six years.

The secret filming allegedly recorded:

  • Cows and bulls were beaten by workers with electric prods when they had nowhere to go, which is illegal
  • Bulls were violently jabbed on their heads for more than 40 minutes, with 200 jabs in all. Another time, they were jabbed 18 times in 15 seconds
  • At least 80 per cent of animals filmed were stunned for insufficient time to render them insensible to pain and distress. Some stuns were as short as one second
  • Most animals slaughtered had time to regain consciousness before having their throats cut because of delays after stunning. No workers were seen checking animals for signs of consciousness
  • Sheep and pigs were filmed hanging while conscious, kicking out and gasping, after insufficient stunning
  •  Cows, some of which were lame, were yelled at, hit and pushed
  • Pigs’ legs were cut as they thrashed on shackles, showing signs of life
  • On four of eight days filmed, stunning equipment failed, causing panic and distress to pigs and sheep

The FSA official vet was not filmed entering the stun or kill rooms, and ignored workers breaching the rules, investigators said.

The footage suggested that CCTV - mandatory in all abattoirs in England since 2018 - was not protecting animals as it should, they added.

“The vet will have missed pre-stun shocks on animals, poor handling, failing stun equipment, insufficient stun times and signs of consciousness for the duration of our recording. Had the vet been viewing CCTV when instances occurred, corrective action should have been taken,” said an AJP spokesperson.

Alick Simmons, former UK government deputy chief vet and former veterinary director at the FSA said there were a number of instances where apparent breaches of the law were shown including a sheep dragged by the horns and severely lame cattle.

“The overall impression given is of routine poor practice in premises barely fit for purpose,” he said.

“The circumstances are made worse by poorly trained and poorly supervised operatives. For example the handling, stunning and killing of piglets is barely adequate, stunning equipment appears to fail on several occasions, repeated shouting by operatives adds to the animals’ distress and, at no time are operatives seen to monitor the effectiveness of the stun.”

Claire Palmer, founder of AJP, said: “Our 200-hour investigation, which took place following a review of slaughter legislation in January, reveals extreme suffering and abuse on a staggering scale, as well as law-breaking.

“The investigation reveals that CCTV is not ‘protecting’ animals in abattoirs, and documents a complete failure by the government-appointed veterinarian to do the job, which caused even more suffering. The public has a right to know the truth - that the system is designed to protect profits and maintain the institutionalised abuse of farmed animals.”

The organisation is calling on environment secretary George Eustice to launch an immediate review of slaughter rules that is independent of the FSA.

G & GB Hewitt asked the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (Aims) to respond to the footage on its behalf. Stephen Lomax, a vet and director of Aims, said the group deplored any breaches of the law on animal welfare in meat plants and supported the highest standards.

He claimed many of the allegations by AJP were “nonsense, misleading or ill informed” but admitted it seemed “likely that animals have also been treated unacceptably in this film”.

“The crucial problem, which needs maximum publicity, is that the FSA does not employ the vets but has privatised and subcontracted the regulation of abattoirs to a private company,” he said.

“Vets in abattoirs were until very recently paid less than minimum wage, according to HMRC, and are recruited almost entirely from unemployed EU recent graduates.

“The industry believes that the regulation of abattoirs should be renationalised and official vets should be civil servants, competent, properly paid professionals.

“The meat industry is completely in favour of enforcing the highest standards of animal welfare in abattoirs, by re-training, advice and whatever legal sanctions are lawful and appropriate.”

He claimed that as long as the chief driver of regulation was enriching a private monopoly, rather than protecting animals, “standards will be sacrificed”.

“Animals move vigorously for minutes, indeed kick and thrash, after they are stone dead, never mind stunned and unconscious , so all this stuff about conscious, live pigs in the scalding tank and ‘hacking in to’ conscious animals is simply deliberate lies,” he said.

He added that he would comment further on the footage if the FSA released the official CCTV.

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said: “The government has a strong track record for raising the bar when it comes to welfare measures, and we are committed to ensuring all animals are treated with the utmost respect at all stages of life.

“As part of our Action Plan for Animal Welfare and following a recently concluded review of the welfare of animals at the time of killing legislation, we are looking at a wide range of welfare at slaughter improvements that could be made to ensure animals are treated humanely and with dignity.”

A Food Standards Agency spokesperson said the agency treated animal welfare at slaughterhouses as a high priority and breaches were a serious matter.

“Since we were notified of this animal welfare group’s filming at G & GB Hewitt, we have been investigating the situation. As the investigation is ongoing, we cannot provide any further details. However, we can confirm that actions against welfare contraventions have been taken.

“Our veterinarians continue to review the footage provided and are monitoring ongoing welfare compliance at the site.”

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