Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor
Modern slaughterhouses are secretive places. The public doesn’t get to see inside them, which suits meat-eaters who don’t want to think about how their food is made. It also suits meat producers, who work hard to conceal the reality of the lives and deaths of animals so as not to put people off their bacon and maintain the viability of their business. As one former slaughterhouse worker wrote in a harrowing essay for the BBC in 2020, slaughterhouses “are filthy, dirty places. There's animal faeces on the floor, you see and smell the guts, and the walls are covered in blood. And the smell... It hits you like a wall when you first enter, and then hangs thick in the air around you. The odour of dying animals surrounds you like a vapour.”
In theory, greater transparency is supposed to help to protect animals and ensure regulations and best practices are being followed when animals meet their end. Since 2018, CCTV has been introduced into more British slaughterhouses, with the government describing it as a “move to cement the UK’s position as a global leader in animal welfare.” But has this change delivered for animals?
All slaughterhouses in England have been required to have CCTV since May 2018, while in Scotland CCTV has been mandatory since July 2021. CCTV images must be kept for 90 days from the date taken and made available to inspectors to view, copy or seize. The Welsh government is still consulting on making slaughterhouse CCTV a legal requirement, while Northern Ireland has no such requirement.
Slaughterhouse CCTV is supposed to protect the welfare of animals at the time of slaughter–or, in the government’s words, “to reassure consumers that high welfare standards are being effectively enforced.” Animals in the UK must be stunned before slaughter (apart from religious slaughter like halal or kosher), restrained for as short a time as possible, and not handled “in a way that causes it pain or suffering.” Official Veterinarians–Food Standards Agency-appointed vets who carry out work such as testing cattle for bovine TB–have unrestricted access to footage from slaughterhouse CCTV to ensure these laws are being enforced.
CCTV and Official Vets are two of several measures that are meant to ensure greater oversight of the meat industry. But a report by Animal Equality and the Animal Law Centre found that the system of oversight and enforcement in the UK is “extremely chaotic and disorderly,” with over 180 tax-payer funded bodies in charge of monitoring compliance with and enforcing animal welfare laws.
Among the monitoring and enforcement bodies are the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which audits food production operations including farms and slaughterhouses. Officers from the FSA, local authorities, and other public sector bodies are in charge of carrying out the audits.
According to Animal Equality’s report, there is usually only one inspector responsible for more than 200 farms, and only farms deemed to be “high risk” for breaches of regulation–typically after a complaint from the public or from an animal protection group–are likely to be inspected. Only 3% of farms are inspected each year on average, partly because there is typically only one inspector responsible for 205 farms.
“The fragmented nature of enforcement in the UK contributes towards the major problem we now face, as it creates a lack of accountability and continuity,” says Animal Equality.
The slaughterhouse CCTV measure is unfortunately plagued with similar problems.
Despite the installation of CCTV cameras, breaches of legal animal welfare standards continue to occur. We have conducted several investigations into slaughterhouses in England since mandatory CCTV was introduced in 2018, and each time have uncovered slaughterhouse workers abusing and mishandling animals, causing them extreme distress in an already frightening situation. Worse still, in one case an Official Veterinarian was present but failed to do their job. More details below.
While the presence of CCTV cameras allow the government to claim it is ensuring animal welfare standards are adhered to, the reality is that the system does not function as the government claims it does. Our investigations show that CCTV is far from sufficient to protect animals from suffering and abuse over and above what they must endure by being sent to slaughter in the first place. It is in fact a smokescreen. It confirms that the presence of CCTV will never ‘protect’ an animal who is going to be killed as protection and slaughter contradict one another.
Over the course of 24 hours, our cameras captured 15 breaches of welfare regulations inside the UK’s largest duck slaughterhouse, Gressingham Foods, a company killing over 150,000 ducks each week for major supermarkets.
Among the breaches were rough handling of birds by their heads, necks, wings and tails, causing them incredible distress. Workers failed to shackle both legs of some ducks, putting immense strain on their delicate joints. Ducks were thrown down a chute without having their vital signs checked to see if they were actually dead. When the kill line stopped, ducks were left hanging upside down from the shackles for up to 14 minutes, even though they legally ought to be unshackled and returned to crates after a maximum of two minutes.
All this occurred within view of Gressingham’s own CCTV cameras.
In the slaughterhouse of Pastures Poultry, a “family-run, award winning poultry farm” raising free-range birds in Northamptonshire, our cameras filmed turkeys and guinea fowls being plucked alive, chickens being dipped in scalding tanks alive and flapping instead of dead as they are supposed to be at that stage, and birds being handled roughly and yanked by their necks while shackled.
Animal farmers in the UK like to talk about small family run businesses being better for animal welfare. But at G. & G. B Hewitt, a small family run slaughterhouse in Chester, neither the presence of CCTV cameras nor an Official Veterinarian stopped workers from abusing the animals.
Severely lame so-called ‘spent’ dairy cows were caught by our cameras being goaded into the building and the stunning chute even though some struggled to walk. The vet hardly looked up as workers hit and shouted at the cows to force them to move.
Two bulls were attacked for 40 minutes with an electric prod and a pointed stick (which is illegal) by three workers, including the slaughterhouse manager, because they were too frightened to move forward. Sticks and prods were also pushed into the faces, eyes, and rectums of other cows.
Animals were not sufficiently stunned, resulting in sheep and pigs thrashing around whilst hanging upside down, even up until their throats were cut. A staggering 97% of pigs and sheep slaughtered during our filming did not have their throats cut within the 15 second time period stipulated by the Food Standards Agency. The manager also began to ‘dress’ (skin) pigs much sooner than slaughter legislation allows.
CCTV in slaughterhouses does not benefit animals; it allows the government to reassure the public about animal welfare standards without actually making sure they are being met (though we know these standards will never ‘protect’ animals anyway). CCTV footage is not routinely nor randomly seized by governing bodies, and our investigations have shown that government inspectors cannot be relied on to report breaches of welfare legislation. Far from increasing transparency in slaughterhouses, CCTV cameras add to the illusion that the meat industry cares at all about the animals it kills. It is a smokescreen.
For the animals.