Britain’s Food Standards Agency says it considering a prosecution following the release of undercover footage revealing ill-treatment of horses at an abattoir.
The footage has been described as appalling by World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers, who called for closed-circuit television monitoring at slaughterhouses in a bid to reduce abuse.
The Food Standards Authority said it had been made aware of footage filmed by Hillside Animal Sanctuary, and put on YouTube, which appeared to show animal welfare offences carried out by slaughtermen at the Red Lion Abattoir, in Cheshire.
The footage was first revealed in a news items on Sky News in Britain on Saturday evening.
The agency said it had immediately withdrawn the licences of the slaughtermen featured in the video after viewing the footage, meaning they cannot continue to slaughter animals.
It said it was reviewing the footage and carrying out further investigations with a view to a potential prosecution.
It said the most serious concerns identified in the footage were:
- Several occasions of more than one horse in the stun box at the same time.
- Excessive use of a stick on a horse.
- Hitting a horse with a rope.
The head of approvals and veterinary advice for the agency, Craig Kirby, said: “I was shocked by the footage and that is why we took immediate action to make sure the individuals involved could not continue to slaughter animals.
“The FSA takes animal welfare at slaughter very seriously, and we will always investigate and take action when we see breaches of the legislation.”
Owers, from World Horse Welfare, described the treatment of the horses in the video as disgusting, appalling and totally illegal.
“What we have seen is a complete, systemic failure of the slaughterhouse to comply with UK welfare laws, and of the Food Standards Agency which should have been enforcing the law – but clearly has not.
“We are now calling for all operations at these premises to be suspended until new procedures are put in place and the FSA guarantees the plant will comply with the law.”
The charity also called on the agriculture department, Defra, to install and monitor closed-circuit TVs in all English slaughterhouses to aid enforcement.
“The public and horse owners need to have confidence that slaughter is carried out humanely in Britain. While it may be a sad fact, there is a role for humane slaughter of horses to help prevent them from suffering long and painful deaths due to illness or neglect.”
The revelations come as Defra was finalising the arrangements to introduce new European Union regulations to protect the welfare of animals at slaughter which will come into effect this summer.
Owers said, in his view, the footage revealed a multitude of illegal practices resulting in unnecessary suffering for the dozens of horses shown in the film.
“We saw horses being treated appallingly every step of the way – from a poor level of care before slaughter, to slaughter in groups of two or three which is illegal and extremely distressing to such social and intelligent animals, to botched or incomplete stunning that appeared to allow some horses to regain consciousness before they were killed.
“These practices are disgusting, appalling and totally illegal and they must be stopped immediately.
“Any chief government veterinarian would agree. There must be a full investigation, and operations at this plant must cease until new procedures are put in place and the FSA guarantees full compliance with the law.”
Ower alleged the following breaches:
- Shooting in groups of two or three – the law requires that animals are pithed or bled without delay after stunning. This requirement cannot be met when animals are stunned in groups. Bleeding horses one at a time after being stunned in a group causes totally unnecessary delay for some of the animals in the group. Some horses in the footage appear to be regaining consciousness before being bled. In some cases the footage showed that the first horse to be stunned was the last to be bled, increasing the likelihood that the horse would regain consciousness before they were killed.
- Horses were permitted to be within sight of another horse being stunned or killed – this is specifically prohibited by the regulations as witnessing such an event can cause significant distress to horses – as is evident in the footage. Even when shot singly, horses should not be shot in the sight of other horses, but in the footage another horse or horses are often present and can even see inside the ‘stun box’.
- Animals were not pithed or bled without delay after stunning; in some cases the delay was considerable – the regulation clearly states that horses should be pithed* or bled without delay to prevent them gaining consciousness.
- In all of the footage viewed, World Horse Welfare did not see any animals being pithed and therefore they should have been bled without delay – but in many instances this did not happen. In many cases the delays in bleeding the animal were lengthy and completely unacceptable.
- Animals were not restrained in an appropriate manner prior to stunning/killing so as to spare them any avoidable pain, suffering or agitation – World Horse Welfare saw many botched stuns in the footage. It appears that three different types of equipment were being used to stun or shoot the animals and in a number of cases the stun was not effective and had to be repeated. In addition the slaughter men had difficulty in raising the head of the animals in order to apply the guns.
- Animals were not moved with care; blows were inflicted on some animals with staves or ropes – this abuse of horses is clearly not allowed under law. Nor is it necessary.
As an exception to this catalogue of breaches, World Horse Welfare did witness at least one slaughter man who demonstrated competence in both handling and killing.
The footage, he said, showed evidence of “catastrophic breaches of the law” that warranted a full investigation.
“I cannot see the public trusting this establishment again until we have CCTV monitoring in place. The FSA has staff on the premises who should have been enforcing the laws that protect these horses, but their efforts have been found seriously wanting,” said Owers.
He urged the public and horse owners not to panic. “There is no evidence to suggest that other slaughterhouses in the UK are abusing the law in this way. We believe there is a role for humane slaughter. We have identified 6000 horses at risk in the country and humane slaughter may eventually be the kindest option for them to save them from a lifetime of neglect and suffering. Homes for horses are in short supply.
“We do not want to see horses exported overseas to slaughter where welfare standards may be even lower – that would be an even worse tragedy.”
Ower said the use of monitoring cameras would produce a permanent record. It would help counter any malicious accusations against the proprietors or employees of licenced premises and permit proprietors to demonstrate that they treat horses humanely.
They would also allow the British public to feel confident that British meat, which has a reputation as a high welfare product, is the result of humane slaughter procedures.
The British Horse Society expressed its shock and revulsion at what it called sickening footage.
“The covert video released by Sky News includes scenes of a grey horse being beaten and groups of animals being stunned simultaneously, something that is completely illegal in Britain. Even more distressingly the film shows a horse apparently returning to consciousness (following stunning) whilst hanging upside down prior to be being bled out,” it said.
Chief executive Lynn Peterson said: “There are absolutely no excuses for what we have seen in this film.
“The treatment of these horses was barbaric, inhumane and frankly a downright disgrace in 21st century Britain. I know that every member of the British Horse Society will be as upset by this as I am and we must do everything we can to ensure this never happens again.
“We must praise the swift action of the Food Standards Agency in revoking the licenses of the slaughtermen involved but this cannot be the end of the matter. It is clear tighter regulation of abattoirs is required and we would support the compulsory installation of CCTV in all such premises.”
Red Lion Abattoir told Sky News that it treated animal welfare and public health with paramount importance.
It said in a statement: “In attendance at the the Red Lion Abattoir are three full-time food standards officers comprising of an official veterinarian and fulltime meat hygiene inspectors throughout production.
The incidents in the footage were of an isolated nature, it said, and it had taken disciplinary action against the individual featured.
“I agree horses should individually enter the stunning area and most certainly not three at a time. However, small horses and ponies having spent years together as companions are difficult to separate. Horse lovers would understand that.
“My opinion and that of other veterinarians is it is better to keep those types together to reduce the stress, providing swift dispatch is achieved.”