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Piglets at RSPCA-backed farms ‘kicked, thrown and electrocuted’

Exclusive: Animal welfare charity suspends members of its Assured scheme after secret footage reveals cruelty

Jane Dalton
Saturday 10 December 2022 16:17 GMT
Animals were roughly handled as welfare regulations were 'breached'

Piglets were given electric shocks, hit, kicked and thrown as they were loaded onto lorries at RSPCA “higher welfare” farms, activists say.

Footage suggested workers subjected pigs and piglets to violence witnessed by colleagues at sites previously endorsed by the charity for having better standards than most.

The RSPCA immediately suspended several farms and a haulier when The Independent showed it the video clips.

A worker puts an electric goad on a pig (Animal Justice Project)

Animal rights organisation Animal Justice Project secretly filmed 125 hours of footage at nine East Anglian farms where workers were loading and unloading pigs onto transporters for abattoirs and to other sites.

Under its RSPCA Assured scheme, the UK’s largest animal welfare charity endorses almost 4,000 hatcheries, farms, hauliers and abattoirs that it says offer better welfare standards than most. Assessors judge standards including humane slaughter and transport.

But the activists claimed that on one occasion, they saw handlers repeatedly touching pigs with an electric prod to get them to move. The footage shows the area was crowded so the pigs, destined for an abattoir, had little space to go into.

“The panicked animals tried to escape by jumping hay bales while the handler shocked them in quick succession without waiting for a response,” Animal Justice Project said.

The RSPCA and Red Tractor – Britain’s farm standards assurance scheme – both ban the use of electric goads, which by law may be used only as a last resort to direct animals the right way, and then only on the animal’s hindquarters.

When large numbers of pigs and piglets were being loaded and unloaded at another site, handlers hit them with large boards, kicked them and threw them in the air and down a ramp, before carrying some of them upside down by their legs.

A worker was filmed apparently warning colleagues the RSPCA were “coming tomorrow”.

A worker appears to kick a piglet in the footage (Animal Justice Project)

At two other East Anglian farms endorsed by the charity, animals were repeatedly jabbed with boards, hit on their heads and rammed with a metal transporter door, the activists said. The violence “added to the animals’ distress, pain and panic”.

On a separate occasion, workers kicked a pig in the face after failing to create an effective barrier.

RSPCA Assured standards on pigs say that “transportation to the abattoir must always be carried out by a trained and approved RSPCA Assured haulier... The use of electric prods, or goads to guide the pigs is also strictly forbidden as they can cause pain and stress.”

Animal Justice Project says the footage raises doubts over the welfare of the 10.9 million pigs transported across the UK to abattoirs and farms each year.

The Conservatives’ grand animal welfare action plan, announced to great fanfare last year, includes a ban on live exports – for which live transport is essential – but the bill containing a ban is at risk of being dropped, as the government has refused to make parliamentary time for it.

The findings were sent to trading standards and the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency.

Alice Brough, a specialist pig vet, said the footage showed use of electric goads was repeated and gratuitous.

“To see piglets of only four weeks of age kicked, hit and thrown with such force is deeply concerning,” she said.

“Not only is it entirely unnecessary, but is a clear breach of welfare regulations on what should be a ‘high welfare’ facility.

“Boards are to be used to create a barrier or passageway so the pigs clearly see which direction they are to move in. They are not to be weaponised, particularly on such young piglets.”

She said several pigs in the footage were covered in filth with what appeared to be ammonia scalding on their back ends, which, she said, “indicates a failure to provide enough clean, dry bedding and a dry lying area, or to manage enteric disease”.

The pigs had had their tails docked – cut – which might not be expected on a higher-welfare farm, she added. “But unfortunately this is the norm.”

The activists said they also documented lame pigs, many with scrotal hernias.

Pigs being hit on the back (Animal Justice Project)

Last year, The Independent revealed that a criminal investigation was launched after pigs were brutally hammered to death at a meat farm endorsed as “high welfare” and supplying Tesco.

This website also exposed how pigs were beaten, mutilated and kept in “squalid” conditions on a French farm linked to Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda and Iceland.

Figures from the government’s Food Standards Agency show that last year almost 3,000 pigs arrived at abattoirs with broken limbs, emaciation, lameness and prolapses, and hundreds of others were dead on arrival.

An RSPCA spokesperson said: “This footage is shocking and the behaviour of these individuals is appalling. It is totally unacceptable for any animal to be treated in this way.

“We urgently launched an investigation as soon as it was brought to our attention and we have suspended all of the farms and one haulier from the RSPCA Assured scheme, pending the outcome of our enquiry.

“Animal welfare is our absolute priority. Any animal welfare failings, or breaches of the scheme’s membership agreement, are extremely upsetting and won’t be tolerated, which is why we acted as soon as these welfare concerns were reported to us.”

A spokesperson for the National Pig Association, which represents commercial pig producers, said: “The UK pig sector takes allegations of the mistreatment of pigs incredibly seriously, and as soon as aware will always encourage the relevant authorities and organisations to investigate, as is the case with this particular footage.

“Appropriate remedial action will follow a full investigation.”

A spokesperson for Trading Standards said it was too early to comment.

The Independent has also asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which runs the Animal and Plant Health Agency, to comment on its behalf.

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