As a small part of my role as a research technician, I make weekly visits to an abattoir to collect blood for my biting fly colony. It’s a University abattoir, so follows strict welfare guidelines, but it still isn’t exactly a nice place to visit. I’ve becoming increasingly concerned when considering what abattoirs with low standards are like, so I was initially excited when I heard that the government are making CCTV compulsory within slaughterhouses.
The first slaughterhouses where this will be enforced will cover chickens bred for meat, laying hens, pigs, dogs, cats and horses, all within the next year.
In the articles I’ve read, there is no mention of cattle or sheep, two of the main livestock animals slaughtered in the UK.
Furthermore, who is going to watch all of this footage?
There are around 278 abattoirs in the UK (Defra, 2016). If they only slaughtered for 2-5 hours a day each, 2780-6950 hours of footage will be produced per week.
Vets working for the Food Standards Agency will have unrestricted access to the footage in future, but I think it is inevitable that the majority of footage will never be viewed due to time constraints, unless there has been a reported welfare concern. It is likely that only ‘random’ samples of footage are observed; this could allow poor practice to continue if the staff are aware that they’re still unlikely to be observed. It can be very easy to become complacent and take calculated risks.
I’ve also watched police programmes where there is CCTV installed at the scene of the crime, but the property owner suspects have either wiped the video or had a ‘technical glitch’, preventing the police from having this evidence. I am concerned that if the abattoirs are responsible for the maintenance of the cameras, will they then be able to hide evidence of malpractice?
Anyway, I’ll stop being skeptical. I am glad that the government are trying to improve animal welfare standards even in the midst of the Brexit debacle, and I think having CCTV will overall be beneficial to animal welfare, particularly if enforced and monitored appropriately.
However, I don’t think it will ever be the sole answer to preventing malpractice in abattoirs. A multi-faceted approach is required, but this inevitably costs money. The slaughterhouse staff I’ve worked with have seemed completely desensitised to killing animals; I completely understand why as the job would be mentally draining otherwise, but I think there needs to be continual provision of education to instil to staff that they are working with live animals that feel fear and pain, so keeping slaughter as humane as possible is vital.
For once, I’m actually quite optimistic. Michael Gove is (surprisingly) making a few decent decisions, despite having no credentials for his job as environmental secretary, and more and more people are expressing an interest in eating high welfare meat. Non-free range eggs have now been almost completely taken over by free range*, and I honestly think the same could happen with high welfare meat vs. cheap meat.
I don’t eat meat anymore, but if I did, I’d be happy to pay drastically more for meat if I knew the animals had been slaughtered in the most humane conditions possible (as well as having high welfare whilst they were alive!).
I believe that public awareness surrounding animal welfare has never been better, but we still have a very long way to go!
*Be careful when buying eggs, some supermarkets such as Asda have been sneaky with their marketing, trying to disguise non-free range eggs as free range!