UK: Supermarket chain pledges CCTV in abattoirs to stamp out cruelty

By Martin Hickman, Consumer Affairs Correspondent,

A slaughterman slits the throat of sheep, then cuts off their heads while they are still alive.

Secret footage shot inside a West Country slaughterhouse has reignited a row over abattoir cruelty, following a series of undercover films that have shed new light on the way animals are killed behind closed doors.

Yesterday Morrisons became the first supermarket to promise to install CCTV at its abattoirs to reassure the public. The RSPCA called for other chains to follow suit. The supermarket said CCTV images from its Colne and Turriff abattoirs would be stored for 30 days and made available to the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Spokesman Martyn Fletcher said: “Our customers want to know that animals are treated well through the slaughtering process and we believe installing CCTV cameras is the best way to demonstrate we have the highest possible standards.

Slaughterhouse cruelty has been under the spotlight after Animal Aid captured breaches of welfare laws at six out of seven randomly selected abattoirs – including one supplying organic meat, where pigs were kicked in the face. Across the UK animals were kicked, slapped, stamped on and thrown into stunning pens.

In its latest investigation, the animal rights group placed a hidden camera in F Drury & Sons, in Wiltshire. Established in 1924, the firm tells customers: “Whatever your requirements you can be assured of the finest service in a modern abbatoir, with excellent facilities and staff working to the highest standard of animal welfare.”

But when Animal Aid filmed, sheep that had been stunned were decapitated straight after their throats were cut. Under the 1995 Welfare of Animals Slaughter or Killing Regulations, 20 seconds must elapse after throat-slitting to ensure animals have bled to death. F Drury & Sons director Chris Drury disputed the firm had broken the law. “We are fairly confident we haven’t broken any rules,” he said.

After viewing the footage, however, the FSA said there had been breaches and stepped up veterinary checks and “recommended improvements”. No legal action is likely, however.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this year dropped prosecutions against five abattoirs based on Animal Aid’s 18-month investigation on the grounds courts would throw out film obtained by trespass. Animal Aid questioned the decision, saying its own legal advice indicated the cases could have succeeded.

September’s footage from F Drury & Sons reinforces the suspicion many, if not most, of the 370 abattoirs in England and Wales break the rules.

Speaking on behalf of F Drury & Sons, the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers said the 20-second rule had been designed for religious slaughter when animals are not stunned. “The likelihood of a stunned animal being conscious is extremely small,” said its veterinary officer Stephen Lomax. “This is not an animal welfare issue.”

He blamed government vets for not alerting owners to the “deplorable” abuse found elsewhere. He said: “There’s no excuse for all the self-serving arguments the FSA gives about these vets [monitoring abattoirs] not having enough time. They spend a great deal of time phoning their boyfriends, reading the newspaper or filling in useless forms. The system has failed.”

The FSA initially denied illegality at F Drury & Sons, but changed its mind when challenged.

It said: “There are practices evident on the footage that show the law relating to the times that animals need to bleed out was not being adhered to. We are currently investigating why this requirement seems not to have been followed. In the meantime, we are speaking to the business to ensure this requirement is followed correctly.”

Animal Aid’s head of campaigns, Kate Fowler, said the statement was “disappointingly weak”. “Our investigations caused much hand-wringing in the industry,” she said. “Meetings were held and promises of change were made. And yet when we put their promises to the test by secretly filming at an eighth slaughterhouse, we find clear evidence of law-breaking and a culture of shocking indifference to the suffering of young animals.”