investigation into a 'humane' slaughterhouse will make you think again
By Danny Penman
Last updated at 9:29 AM on 12th January 2010
The Vale of Ashburton has long been regarded as an idyllic corner of rural Devon. Groups of ramblers clamber over muddy stiles, while farmers round up their cattle ready for the afternoon's milking.
The view from the slopes of nearby Rippon Tor is perfect - so perfect in fact, that local artists do a thriving trade in watercolours of the vale.
The serenity is only enhanced by the sound of sheep calling to each other across the hillsides as they chew on the lush grass.
Brutal: A slaughterman drives his knee into a sheep's body as he wields a bolt gun at the creature
But every now and again, if you listen carefully, you can hear other animal sounds, ones that shatter this bucolic vision. The sounds are of terrified animals as they are herded into an abattoir in the valley below before being systematically killed.
The owner of the slaughterhouse in question is a man named Tom Lang, and he is proud of the fact his establishment is certified by the Soil Association for the 'humane slaughter' of organically reared animals.
But thanks to a Mail investigation, that certificate was suspended last month, after staff at the abattoir were filmed inflicting appalling cruelty on pigs and sheep.
We obtained video footage that shows workers routinely flouting both the Soil Association's organic rules and The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter and Killing) Regulations 1995. We discovered pigs and sheep being beaten and, even more horrifyingly, animals having their throats slit without being adequately stunned first.
Animal Aid, a national welfare group, planted secret cameras inside the slaughterhouse and shot 40 hours of footage over a two-week period.
Vicious: Another abattoir slaughterman lashes out and kicks a pig in the head
This particular slaughterhouse was chosen not because it was one of the worst in Britain, but because it was assumed to be one of the best - certified with the gold standard of the organic industry that sets so much store by the way animals are raised and killed.
The camera footage shows trailer-loads of cattle, sheep and pigs arriving throughout the day at Tom Lang's abattoir near Ashburton.
Scores of animals are crammed into these trucks, and on their arrival they are chased out of the vans by men wielding sticks. To strike the animals causes them undue stress and is against the regulations for organically reared animals.
Once inside the abattoir, our pictures show pigs being beaten as they're herded around the complex. We also found several cases of animals having their throats slit without adequate stunning, again against regulations.
In one scene, a group of terrified pigs are herded into a 'knocking pen' where they are kicked and beaten by a slaughterman before being stunned with electric tongs.
One pig tries to escape, running hither and thither, frantically trying to climb the walls of the pen.
One shaven-headed man stands out for his brutality. He kicks, punches, knees and bashes a pig with steel stunning tongs no fewer than 20 times. The creature can be heard screaming as the blows rain down upon it.
At one stage, a slaughterman appears bored of stunning the animals with the electric tongs and reaches for a bolt gun instead. This is a different method of stunning the animals.
He shoots a sheep in the head. The animal falls on to its side and struggles to get up - its legs frantically pawing at the air.
Welfare rules state that an animal should be killed or 'stuck' - by having its throat slit - within 15 seconds of being stunned.
If there is any delay before the animal is 'stuck' it will start regaining consciousness. On countless occasions, these rules were flouted. One sheep was stunned and left hanging upside down for at least 50 seconds.
Pain: The video shows a pig being hit 20 times with steel stunning tongs like the ones in this picture
The creature was left dangling by a hind leg, and can be seen gradually starting to move again. First, its front legs start twitching, then the animal becomes increasingly frantic before the slaughterman stabs it in the neck.
Jason Aldiss, President of the Veterinary Public Health Association, says: 'Every animal should be stuck within 15 seconds. After this time, there's a great risk that an animal will start to regain consciousness.'
In fact, one of the sheep there was left for more than 50 seconds.
Stephen Wotton, a vet from Bristol University specialising in the welfare of animals at slaughter, says such scenes are wholly unacceptable.
'After 50 seconds the animal is very likely to have regained consciousness.'
Sure enough, on the video from Tom Lang's abattoir, on many occasions sheep can be seen pawing at the air after they are 'stuck', suggesting they are conscious as they bleed out (the technical term for slitting the throat).
Mr Wotton says: 'If an animal starts to regain consciousness, then you should immediately re-stun it. It's an important part of the slaughtering procedure and should be standard practice in any slaughterhouse.'
Roaming free: There is a premium on meat reared organically as consumers pay for the level of welfare an animal receives
Such brutality and casual indifference to suffering should not be seen inside any slaughterhouse, and certainly not in one certified by the Soil Association - a charity campaigning for organic food and farming which claims to have strict rules for the humane slaughter of animals.
It says: 'It is worth remembering the peace of mind that Soil Association certification buys you. It means that any animals involved in producing your foodstuffs have enjoyed the highest standards of welfare.'
It is the job of the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) to police Britain's slaughterhouses. They have a vet with responsibility for every abattoir to ensure that all animals are dispatched in a humane fashion. When the MHS was shown the footage from the Tom Lang slaughterhouse, it sent a team of vets to visit the plant.
Steve McGrath, MHS chief executive, says: 'We acted quickly when we saw these pictures of animal cruelty. We suspended three slaughterers immediately and we're collating evidence to support a potential prosecution of the slaughterhouse operator and slaughterers.
'Slaughtermen tell you they'll run you over with a truck'
'We were all shocked by what we saw in the footage. There's consensus throughout the Meat Hygiene Service on that.
'Senior MHS vets have also visited Tom Lang personally and we have put additional staff into the slaughterhouse on a temporary basis to ensure that standards of slaughtering are acceptable. Our on-site official veterinarian is also making additional random checks on slaughtering.'
Stephen Lomax, spokesman for Tom Lang Ltd, claims they were unaware of the breaches until the MHS brought it to their attention. He says the abattoir owners were 'absolutely mortified' by the scenes filmed in their slaughterhouse.
'We're disappointed that all of our staff were not operating to their usual high standard,' says Mr Lomax.
'We're responsible for our own staff, but questions have to be raised about the Meat Hygiene Service. There was an MHS vet in place when these incidents took place. It's a pity that they never drew them to our attention.'
For its part, the MHS says that the abattoir's owners have a clear legal responsibility for every welfare breach that occurs.
'That's why abattoirs are prosecuted when they break the law,' says MHS chief executive Mr McGrath.
The disturbing footage in the video from this Devon abattoir will leave many people wondering whether the same brutality is practised in slaughterhouses across the country - on animals raised both organically and non-organically.
Inspectors are powerless to enforce the law
Certainly, the figures for breaches in animal welfare laws make for disturbing reading.
The MHS has prosecuted 33 abattoirs and slaughterers over the past three years.
They have also ordered 166 slaughterhouses to tighten up their procedures on 455 separate occasions over the same period. That equates to three serious breaches every single week.
Given that most animal slaughtering probably occurs out of sight of a MHS inspector, that's a grim toll indeed. But even these figures may be just the tip of the iceberg. One inspector who recently left the industry told me that they are often powerless to enforce the law, even if they see routine breaches.
He said: 'If you become rigorous about enforcing the rules the slaughtermen become very aggressive. They tell you bluntly that if you're too keen, they will simply run over you with a truck or push you into a machine, but it would look like an accident.
'I wasn't prepared to take the risk, and left the industry. Many of my colleagues stayed behind and turned a blind eye.'
This may seem like an extreme claim, but even the MHS admits that the slaughterhouse can often be a 'confrontational environment' for its inspectors.
'High welfare' assurance schemes that seek to placate concerned consumers, such as the RSPCA's Freedom Food and the Soil Association's organic label, claim to offer an alternative. Animals reared under these schemes are presumed to live a happy life and die a swift and humane death.
One pig frantically tries to climb the walls of the pen
Yet the RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme - which applies to meat sold in many supermarkets - is in many ways indistinguishable from factory farming.
For example, it still allows chickens to be reared in huge intensive broiler sheds.
Flocks of 30,000 are not uncommon. And the example of Tom Lang's abattoir, which was approved by the Soil Association, shows that even the coveted 'organic' logo may not be a guarantee of cruelty-free meat.
The Soil Association's standards undoubtedly offer the best welfare for animals on British farms, but this investigation raises obvious questions about whether it is fundamentally any better for animals when they reach the slaughterhouse.
David Peace, managing director of the Soil Association's certification division, says they will investigate further.
'Our position is always that all animals, organic or not, should be slaughtered humanely and with dignity,' says Mr Peace.
'Our inspectors carry out rigorous annual inspections of certified abattoirs and a number of unannounced spot-checks. But it is the day-to-day role of the Meat Hygiene Service to ensure animal health and welfare regulations are followed.'
Animal Aid is now calling for an overhaul of the way slaughterhouses operate.
The group's director, Andrew Tyler, says: 'Slaughtermen need to be assessed to make sure that they are fit and proper people for the job. They should not have convictions for violent crimes or for cruelty to animals. In addition, all abattoirs should be fitted with CCTV so that the slaughterers know that they are being watched and have to abide by the rules.'
Perhaps footage like this will encourage a serious reassessment of the way animals are dispatched in Britain.
It should also serve as a wake-up call for all those shoppers who insist on buying organic meat - at a considerable premium - to ensure they are eating an animal which has been treated humanely from 'field to plate'.
Increasingly, it seems, that simply isn't the case.
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