There were more than 4,000 severe breaches of animal welfare regulations over the past two years at British slaughterhouses, according to data released by the government’s food watchdog under freedom of information laws.
The data, comprising reports by vets and hygiene inspectors, details instances of needless pain and distress that include chickens being boiled alive and trucks of animals suffocating or freezing to death.
The log of reports submitted to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reveals how regular breakdowns on production lines, equipment failures and poor procedures in abattoirs result in thousands of animals being subjected to avoidable suffering each year. Many individual acts of cruelty and neglect by slaughterhouse staff, hauliers and farmers are also documented, alongside malpractice that increases the risk of food poisoning.
The FSA, which released the data to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), said only a tiny percentage of animals that pass through Britain’s slaughterhouses are affected, adding that the vast majority of meat processors comply with regulations.
Meat inspectors and campaigners argue there is an under-reporting of welfare abuses, blaming insufficient staff and the often intimidating working conditions at abattoirs.
Vets and meat hygiene inspectors working for the FSA inside abattoirs reported a total of 9,511 animal welfare breaches between July 2014 and June 2016, with records classified into three categories according to severity. Category 2 refers to a low-risk isolated incident, while category 4, the most serious, means animals were subjected to avoidable pain, distress or suffering.
The BIJ’s analysis reveals almost half the recorded incidents were category 4 breaches – a total of 4,455, or an average of six a day. A single breach can involve hundreds of animals. Between April 2011 and July 2014 there were 6,859 reported incidents in all categories.
Neil Parish MP, chairman of the Commons select committee for environment, food and rural affairs, described the results as shocking.
There is no place for animal cruelty at any stage of farm production – including the slaughterhouse, said Parish. This country prides itself as having some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. It’s vital the authorities crack down on any abuses and ensure there is zero tolerance to any mistreatment of animals when slaughtered.
The welfare infractions included a cow being violently slammed against a wall following an argument between two workers; an abattoir worker beating three bulls with a wooden stick and electric prod; and a haulier hitting and kicking cattle during unloading, an incident that was caught on CCTV. Many involved sheep being grabbed by the wool and ears or dragged by the horns, or pigs being lifted by their ears and tails.
Failures in the slaughter process were also highlighted, with thousands of instances of animals not being stunned properly and in some cases not stunned at all. Inspectors recorded cases of chickens and pigs being immersed in tanks of scalding hot water – used to soften the skin and remove hair or feathers – while still alive.
Almost 600 instances were recorded of animals arriving at slaughterhouses already dead. In one case 574 chickens, from a load of 6,072 birds, died after being left on a lorry in very hot conditions. This counts as one welfare breach despite involving hundreds of birds.
The data also highlights practices that could facilitate the spread of the bacteria campylobacter, the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. About four in five cases of the infection, which kills about 100 people a year, come from contaminated poultry.
Ensuring birds are as calm as possible when they are being caught and transported is an important preventative measure, because stressed birds defecate more, potentially spreading the infection and increasing the risk of meat contamination. However, the data includes regular instances of chickens being overstocked in crates and incidents of birds being left in lorries for lengthy periods of time. In one case, because of a breakdown at the plant, 14 trucks were left overnight for more than 12 hours; in another, birds were left in crates at the abattoir for 20 hours.
The British Meat Processors Association, the industry trade body, declined to comment on the findings.
More than 900 million farm animals are killed for food each year in Britain. There are 317 approved slaughterhouses across the UK, most run by a handful of large companies that dominate the meat processing sector.
It is unclear from the data how many of the breaches resulted in any sanctions or improvements. Most of the category 4 breaches were referred to regional Trading Standards offices, which have responsibility for monitoring farms and transportation, but there is no requirement for the vets and inspectors who make the referral to record details of what happens next.
A spokesperson for the FSA said it had zero tolerance for welfare breaches and used a proportionate approach to enforcement. Action could include suspending or withdrawing certificates of competence from slaughterers, referring cases for prosecution, stopping operations or serving welfare enforcement notices.
There is a comprehensive animal verification procedure in place at every slaughterhouse for monitoring animal welfare, the spokesperson said. [Category 4 breaches] can be the result of unavoidable accidents rather than deliberate abuse.
Between June 2014 and July 2016, the spokesperson said, all category 4 breaches resulted in enforcement action. But in 2013 and 2014 the FSA referred 14 breaches of welfare regulations to the CPS, of which four resulted in prosecutions. Three of those prosecutions were later dropped.
Of the remaining cases, four resulted in warning letters. Over the course of the two years, two slaughterers’ licences were suspended and three were revoked for failure to comply with welfare legislation.
The fact that serious welfare breaches were the exception not the norm was not the point, said Marc Cooper, head of farm animals at the RSPCA.
Such incidences of severe pain, distress and suffering are wholly unacceptable and completely avoidable, he said. If they’re avoidable, that means they shouldn’t be happening at all – you shouldn’t be seeing one. You would hope that strong enforcement action would be taken.
News Source TheGuardianNews