4,000 animal welfare breaches in two years, reports Bureau

British farm animals are being subjected to needless pain and distress as they are slaughtered, a study from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed. 

Data provided by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed that vets and hygiene inspectors have reported over 4,000 severe breaches of animal welfare regulations over the past two years – or around six breaches each day. Instances of violation include chickens being boiled alive and trucks of animals suffocating or freezing to death.

Thousands of animals each year are subject to unavoidable suffering from regular breakdown on production lines, equipment failures and poor procedures in abattoirs, the study showed. Acts of cruelty by individuals were also documented, alongside equipment failure.

Animals have been presented for slaughter in unfit condition, with some being too weak to stand, while others were diseased or suffered from fractures or open wounds. Failures in stunning procedures also allowed some animals to regain consciousness before being killed.

A total of 9,511 animal welfare breaches were documented by veterinarians and meat-hygiene inspectors working for the FSA inside abattoirs between July 2014 and June 2016.

The breaches fall into three categories. category 2 refers to a low-risk and isolated instance, while category 4 is the most serious and means that animals were subjected to “avoidable pain, distress or suffering”.

Almost half of the incidents – 4,455 – constituted category 4 breaches.

“There is no place for animal cruelty at any stage of farm production – including the slaughterhouse,” Neil Parish, chairman of the House of Commons select committee for the environment, food and rural affairs told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

“This country prides itself on 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 for any mistreatment of animals when slaughtered.”

Analysing data going back to April 2011, the bureau revealed there had been 16,370 breaches of animal regulations, 6,241 of which were category 4. The majority of incidents took place when the animals were transported from farms to abattoirs.

From 2014 to 2016, 4,005 category-4 incidents were transport-related, 130 reflected problems during stunning or killing, and 320 fell under the category of ‘other’.

Violations include a cow being “violently slammed” against a wall following an argument by two workers, an abattoir employee beating three bulls with a wooden stick and electric prod, and a haulier hitting and kicking cattle during unloading – an act which was caught on CCTV.

Other incidents saw sheep being grabbed by the wool and ears or being dragged by the horns, and pigs being lifted by their ears and tails.

There were also cases where the animal was not stunned at all before slaughter, and instances of chickens and pigs being immersed in tanks of scalding water while still alive.

There have been almost 600 instances during the period under review of animals arriving at slaughterhouses already dead. One example saw 574 chickens from a load of 6,072 dead on arrival due to overheating.

Despite the high death toll, this counts as one welfare breach.

Aside from mistreatment of animals, the data showed that these practices could result in the spread of campylobacter – the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK.

Although larger abattoirs are required to have a dedicated animal welfare officer, there have been claims that there is a staff shortage, resulting in ongoing breaches.

It has also been claimed that category-4 breaches could be the result of unavoidable accidents rather than deliberate abuse, an argument the RSPCA has been keen to rebut.

“Such incidents of severe pain, distress and suffering are wholly unacceptable and completely avoidable,” said Marc Cooper, head of farm animals at the RSPCA. “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.”

Many pressure groups are calling for CCTV surveillance to be made mandatory in all slaughterhouses.

A report commissioned by Animal Aid showed that independent monitoring of CCTV in English abattoirs is both ‘cost-effective and feasible’.

“Over and over again, we see the consequences of a toothless, unmotivated regulatory regime that fails animals when they are at their most vulnerable,” said Isobel Hutchinson, head of campaigns at Animal Aid.

“Meaningful protection for animals from the violence and incompetence that has repeatedly been exposed can come only from mandatory, independently monitored CCTV in all slaughterhouses.

“The government has dragged its heels for too long on this issue. But these latest revelations, combined with the findings of a new independent report, leave it with no choice but to act without delay.”

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