Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor
We’ve carried out many undercover investigations over the years to reveal the reality of how animals are treated on farms and in slaughterhouses across the UK. The responses from authorities, retailers supplied by the farms, and certifying organisations like Red Tractor vary, from radio silence to suspension (and often later reinstatement) of farms from certification schemes. Less than 1 percent of farms are prosecuted following complaints of animal cruelty.
Our most recent investigation into Woodhead Bros abattoir owned by Morrisons provoked a dishonest and evasive response from the supermarket and the authorities. The disturbing footage gathered by our undercover worker revealed routine and severe abuse of pigs from the moment they were unloaded from trucks to the moment they were gassed to death.
In press reports on the investigation, Morrisons claimed some of the footage and audio recordings were not from their abattoir, while carefully avoiding outright condemnation of the clear breaches of animal welfare laws and the supermarkets’ own standards and blaming workers of “third party hauliers” for being “more forceful than necessary”, even though the hauliers are Morrisons owned. The implications here are that we used footage from elsewhere on purpose, and that none of the rough handling of animals is Morrisons’ fault. But we learned from The Times journalist who broke the story that Morrisons initially admitted fault before changing tack to cast doubt on the authenticity of our footage.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA), which oversees food safety and slaughterhouses in England, then began requesting to see our footage – the first time it has done so in all the times we’ve alerted it to welfare violations. It appears the FSA had been lobbied by the British Meat Producers Association (BMPA) on behalf of Morrisons, with BMPA claiming in an article in Spalding Today that we had to hand over the unedited footage.
While we have previously submitted all investigation footage to relevant authorities and certifying organisations like Red Tractor, in this instance we refrained for several reasons, including to protect our investigator’s identity and past experience of the FSA failing to act on evidence of wrong-doing. Instead, we urged the FSA to obtain footage from inside Morrisons’ abattoir from the mandatory CCTV. Indeed, this is the very point of the CCTV; it would make sense for it to be the first port of call in a situation where a regulator does not want to rely solely on the footage gathered by activists. As yet, we do not know if the FSA has asked Morrisons to provide CCTV footage.
These failures by retailers and authorities to thoroughly investigate farms and abattoirs or hold them to account for animal abuse are, unfortunately, not unheard of. Nor is the tactic employed by Morrisons of casting suspicion on activists in order for retailers and meat producers to discredit us and protect themselves.
When we investigated Gressingham Foods duck farms in 2019, Gressingham implied we were actually behind some of the stresses their ducks were clearly under, including interfering with the lighting timer so that the ducks were deprived of any periods of darkness for more than 24 hours. This was a shocking denial of their own mismanagement and abdication of responsibility to the animals. It was also after our 2020 investigation in Gressingham’s duck slaughterhouse that we realised we couldn’t rely on the FSA to do its job properly. After the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to prosecute Gressingham, the FSA chose not to appeal on the nonsensical grounds that we had launched a petition asking supermarkets to drop Gressingham.
On a number of occasions we have heard nothing at all from Red Tractor, the RSPCA, the Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA), or the local Trading Standards authority when we have submitted evidence or complaints of animal abuse. This silence is perhaps not surprising, as it turns out that only half of farms are inspected by government agency inspectors following a complaint of animal cruelty.
In some cases, retailers have cut ties with farms, such as Abel & Cole did after our investigation into Bath Soft Cheese organic dairy farm and Tesco, Waitrose, and others did with goat farm St Helen’s after footage showing animal abuse was handed to vegan campaign group Surge. No doubt it’s easier for retailers to take such a stand when they don’t own the farm or abattoir in question, as Morrisons does with Woodhead Bros. But some cases, such as the deplorable conditions filmed at Hogwood pig farm filmed by Viva! over the course of several years, show that it can take retailers and authorities far too long to act on evidence of wrong-doing.
Now with our latest investigation into Morrisons’ abattoir, we are witnessing attempts to dupe the public and evade proper oversight. If Morrisons really cared as “deeply” about animal welfare as it claims to do, or the FSA really had a “zero tolerance approach” to animal welfare issues, they wouldn’t be focussing on us but on the abattoirs where abuse is clearly normal and routine.
For the animals.