Article published in the Guardian by Chas Newkey- Burden
“We all have a high regard for animal welfare,” said Theresa May during yesterday’s prime minister’s questions. A curious comment from someone who, during the general election campaign, said: “Personally, I’ve always been in favour of fox hunting.”
Thankfully, the beleaguered PM has abandoned her pledge to allow a free vote on repealing the hunting ban – at least for now. The environment minister announced this week that May’s desperate administration is not planning to bring forward a vote in “this session”. But for those who really do have a high regard for animal welfare, there’s another Tory manifesto pledge we’re hoping she’ll honour – to make it mandatory that all slaughterhouses be fitted with CCTV.
Animal welfare groups have spent years calling for compulsory cameras, which would be monitored by an independent body that has welfare as its focus. On the face of it, the step seems a controversy-free no-brainer. The Farm Animal Welfare Committee, British Veterinary Association, Food Standards Agency and RSPCA have all backed slaughterhouse CCTV.
So have supermarket bosses and the chiefs of several restaurant chains. Other countries, including France and Israel, are introducing it. A majority of the British public is also behind the idea: a YouGov poll found that 76% agreed the government should make it mandatory for slaughterhouses to be monitored using CCTV.
Support for the move spans meat eaters who hand over their hard-earned money for what emerges from the slaughterhouse doors, and vegans such as me, who dream of the day those doors close for ever. Abattoir bosses like to tell us how scrupulous they are about caring for animals, so why would they oppose CCTV?
Experience shows that some of them have plenty to hide. Between 2009 and 2016, the animal welfare group Animal Aid secretly filmed inside 11 randomly chosen UK slaughterhouses. Their undercover researchers found clear evidence of cruelty and law-breaking in 10 of those 11. The harrowing evidence shows workers stubbing out cigarettes in pigs’ faces, and animals being stamped on, beaten and punched. Lame animals were kicked as they dragged themselves along the slaughterhouse floor. Sheep were smashed headfirst against solid structures. Terrified animals were picked up by their fleeces and tossed into stunning pens. Many of them were inadequately stunned, meaning they were conscious as workers repeatedly hacked at their throats with blunt knives. Watch the video if you want to ruin your life.
There is no good reason to oppose CCTV in abattoirs. There is no financial obstacle: in 2015, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that the costs of CCTV are “relatively modest”, adding: “We do not think the cost of the equipment is prohibitive.” Taxpayers are already shelling out around £30m annually for monitoring to be performed by visiting vets, whose efforts may be well-intentioned but don’t appear to be preventing all the abuse. Neither is there any privacy issue. Employees in many sectors are routinely filmed as they work, including those of banks and other financial institutions. It is a crazy state of affairs when those working with money are monitored more closely than those dealing with defenceless animals.
Studies have show that slaughterhouse workers can become desensitised by their jobs and can display levels of aggression similar to those of prison populations. Are they then the right people to be handling the estimated 1bn animals the UK slaughters for food each year, many of which are still babies when they are made into someone’s dinner?
It’s crazy that people working with money are monitored more closely than those dealing with defenceless animals
The very least we can do is properly monitor the process. There wouldn’t necessarily need to be a separate individual to watch every moment of footage from each UK abattoir. To establish whether routine stunning and slaughter processes are being carried out correctly could take minimal time. Independently monitored CCTV would also allow any conscience-stricken worker who had witnessed abuse to discreetly point the authorities to copper-bottomed evidence of it.
In one of Animal Aid’s videos, the case for CCTV is made clearly. A slaughterhouse worker inflicts such brutal attacks on a group of pigs that their screams begin to catch the attention of other people. Significantly, the worker killed the next five animals legally. It appears that the moment he knew he was being watched, he reined in the cruelty. It’s time to make them know they are always being watched.
In their election manifesto, the Tories promised to do just that. The prime minister claims she has a high regard for animal welfare. She can prove it by activating her manifesto pledge without delay.