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CCTV in Slaughterhouses

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

I am grateful for the opportunity this evening to raise the issue of the need for CCTV to be installed and monitored in slaughterhouses, in an effort to better aid animal welfare.

I personally have been vegetarian for more than a quarter of a century, because I am concerned about animal welfare issues in the production of meat, and also for food and environmental sustainability reasons, but I recognise that the majority of people eat meat. However, I would contend that the majority of those people who eat meat want to know that their food is sourced to the highest standards when it comes to animal welfare.

Trainee slaughterers are tested to ensure that they know the laws relating to animal welfare before they are licensed, and yet when secret cameras have been installed in slaughterhouses, many of them have been caught flouting welfare laws, often in shocking and sickening ways. All too often, this cruelty is casually meted out to every animal that passes through their hands.

The Animal Aid charity has carried out covert investigations going back as far as 2009. Since then, the group has secreted cameras inside 10 randomly selected UK slaughterhouses and found serious animal welfare breaches in nine of them. The latest evidence from a non-stun Yorkshire slaughterhouse was released to the media just this morning. It showed that the layout of the slaughterhouse was deficient and, in the words of the group,

“was guaranteed to cause unnecessary suffering to animals”.

One wonders how that slaughterhouse was ever approved in the first place. The video from inside the abattoir shows casual, routine violence, with sheep being picked up by the ears, legs and fleeces and thrown on to the conveyor, or hurled head first into solid structures. It shows that the “surgically sharp knife” was often so blunt that the slaughterer had to hack over and over again at the throats of still-conscious animals. It also shows workers tormenting animals: waving knives in their faces; shouting at them; and in one case painting spectacles on the face of a sheep, so that they could laugh at the animal as she bled to death.

I think every one of us was shocked when we saw the CCTV video and the pictures in the papers. I understand that in every abattoir there is an official veterinary officer who is available to monitor what happens inside the abattoir. They have to be of a certain qualified standard, but I understand that some of them are not. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps the way forward with this issue is to ensure that those official veterinary officers have the qualifications to observe and monitor the abattoirs, to ensure that these practices do not happen.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The fact is that the vets who are on site in slaughterhouses are not everywhere at once, and too many incidents have been missed, as I will discuss. Proper training is essential, but having an all-seeing eye and independent monitoring would ensure the maximum quality of animal welfare conditions in our slaughterhouses.

The recording to which I was referring shows appalling violence. The Food Standards Agency has so far suspended the licences of three workers, and I understand it is also building cases for prosecutions. Terrible as those actions are, that slaughterhouse is not, unfortunately, an anomaly.

I speak in a dual capacity, as a farmer’s daughter and as the Member for North Down. I strongly support the hon. Gentleman’s call to make CCTV cameras compulsory in all slaughterhouses, and I hope that that would be extended to Northern Ireland. Can he enlighten the House as to the estimated cost of the installation of such cameras?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. My brother is a farmer, and many farmers I have spoken to are deeply concerned that the welfare that they care about when the animals are on their farm is discarded in the final moments in the slaughterhousesI received an e-mail about that just earlier today. I will come on to address the cost to slaughterhouses, but it would range from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand pounds. Given the scale of the industry, only a small amount would be needed to install CCTV across all slaughterhouses in the UK. I deliberately say the UK, because it is important that Northern Ireland, as well as Great Britain, is included.

Earlier recordings revealed animals being kicked, slapped, stamped on, picked up by fleeces and ears, and thrown into stunning pens. They recorded animals being improperly stunned and coming round again, or suffering painful electrocution instead of being stunned. Cameras have also captured animals being deliberately and illegally beaten and punched, and burned with cigarettes. Workers have been caught hitting pigs in the head with shackle hooks, and using the stunning tongs deliberately to cause pain by sending electric shocks through animals’ ears, noses, tails, legs and abdomens, and even, in one case, through an open mouth.

The key point I wish to convey tonight is that not one of the illegal acts filmed was detected by the Government-appointed on-site vets or the slaughterhouse operators, who have ultimate responsibility for animal welfare. The current regulatory system fails animals badly, and I believe it is time to rectify that. Workers do know the law and they know how to abide by it, yet investigations show that it is routinely flouted when they think no one is watching—in which case, someone needs to be watching. Independently monitored CCTV could help reduce the number of vicious attacks in the first instance by deterring them. Who would stub a cigarette out on the face of an animal if they knew the illegal act was being recorded?

Cameras could help prevent routine suffering by detecting institutionalised poor practice, such as the illegal stunning and slaughter methods used in at least four of the slaughterhouses videoed by Animal Aid. Any vet who saw these methods would have been able to step in and advise retraining for the staff involved. And, of course, those who do cause deliberate unnecessary suffering to animals are much more likely to be caught. The recordings, when properly monitored, provide evidence that will allow food business operators and the Food Standards Agency to take decisive action. Since Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals welfare standards introduced the requirement for installation of CCTV in abattoirs from 2011, all Freedom Food scheme-approved slaughterhouses have had to install effective CCTV systems and store recordings, and make them available to Freedom Food and RSPCA field staff.

The hon. Gentleman is being gracious in allowing my interventions. Perhaps he is coming on to this, but will someone be paid to monitor and observe the CCTV? Will there not be a cost factor in that, too?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The importance of CCTV is that what is recorded is stored for a period of time and then made available to independent inspectors. I know of a number of groups that would be willing to provide that service at no cost to the taxpayer because of their concern for animal welfare.

Let me return now to the RSPCA and the Freedom Food scheme. The two organisations have direct practical experience of seeing and assessing the issues associated with the operation of CCTV systems in a range of slaughterhouses. Based on first-hand experience, the use of CCTV in abattoirs is likely to bring many benefits to animals, inspectors and food business operators. Many of those benefits have already been realised in abattoirs that have installed such monitoring.

The presence of an effective CCTV system in abattoirs is also likely to improve confidence among consumers, enforcers, the food industry and the farming industry that poor practice is being avoided—or at least is more likely to be identified and properly dealt with.

One RSPCA farm livestock officer who monitors Freedom Food approved abattoirs, and who has many years of experience of viewing practices and assessing compliance with welfare provisions in slaughterhouses both before and after CCTV, said:

“In my opinion it has improved welfare considerably.”

The slaughter industry has not made a good name for itself. In recent years, the media have reported on: the deliberate adulteration of meat products with horsemeat; the scandalously high levels of Campylobacter in chicken; the theft of firearms from slaughterhouses; the use of a captive bolt gun to commit a murder; and a number of abattoir workers being killed or seriously harmed at work, sometimes through misuse of equipment, poor training or irresponsible behaviour. Add to that the repeated revelations of cruelty to animals and it is clear that there needs to be better monitoring.

The supermarkets have already taken decisive action. All the major chains—Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, the Co-op, Morrisons, Marks and Spencer, Lidl, Aldi, Waitrose and Iceland, as well as wholesaler Booker—now insist that their slaughterhouse suppliers have CCTV installed. This so-called “voluntary” scheme has led to a significant increase in the number of slaughterhouses installing CCTV. The latest Food Standards Agency figures suggest that 19% of red meat slaughterhouses have CCTV, which accounts for around 48% of red meat volume, and 29% of white meat slaughterhouses, which accounts for 59% of poultry meat volume.

Although that is a positive step, a voluntary scheme has its obvious limitations. Not everyone will install cameras and, as was noted by an FSA board member, it is likely that those who resist installing CCTV are most in need of additional regulation and scrutiny.

There seem to be just three arguments put forward against implementing this much-needed legislation. The first is that CCTV cameras do not work because they were already in one of the slaughterhouses filmed by Animal Aid. My reply is that of course poorly sited cameras with no one monitoring the footage will not work. The answer is ensuring that cameras are in the right place, that recordings are kept for a significant period, and that an independent body, which is focused on the protection of animals, gets to select random or appropriate sections. There is no argument that anyone should view the recordings in their entirety. Clearly, that would be an impractical, onerous task.

The second argument is that veterinary surveys show the same level of compliance in slaughterhouses that have cameras as those that do not. However, we know from investigations that vets do not see the commonplace abuse that takes place in slaughterhouses, so how can they report with any degree of accuracy on levels of compliance? The answer is simply that they cannot.

That exact problem was highlighted again recently when the official number of recorded mis-stuns in slaughterhouses was made public. Vets in slaughterhouses record the cases in which the animals are not stunned properly and at the end of the year those figures are counted up. In 2009, those veterinary figures stated that there were just five mis-stuns of pigs across the whole country for the entire year, but in 2009 Animal Aid placed hidden cameras inside three slaughterhouses, one of which mis-stunned more than 99% of the pigs while another mis-stunned more than 10%. In 2010, the veterinary figures once again suggested that there were just five mis-stuns of pigs across the whole country for the entire year, whereas secret recordings measured 762 mis-stunned pigs in a single slaughterhouse over just three days. It is clear that vets do not see what is happening, which is why we need independently monitored CCTV.

Finally, we come to the cost. The cost of CCTV installation is not prohibitive—it is just a few hundred pounds for the smaller slaughterhouses and £2,000 to £3,000 for the larger ones. Supermarkets report no resistance to their request that slaughterhouse suppliers install cameras. Although those one-off costs are low, there are various funding options that could be explored. They include individual slaughterhouses funding their own cameras, the industry funding them and the Government making available loans or grants. Although money at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is understandably limited, between 2011 and 2014 DEFRA gave more than £900,000 in funding to slaughterhouses through the rural development programme for England. That sum would sufficiently pay for CCTV installation in every slaughterhouse in England that does not have it. In any case, there could be phase-in times and derogations for the smallest slaughterhouses to help facilitate the change.

As for the cost of independent monitoring of the recording, there are options to be explored but we should remember that the taxpayer is already paying in the region of £30 million a year to regulate slaughterhouses, and that in terms of animal protection at least that money is clearly not working. It is much better to re-evaluate the system and use those millions to ensure that animal welfare laws are upheld.

In conclusion, CCTV is a practical, sensible and proportionate response to a serious, widespread problem. It will not stop the suffering inside slaughterhouses, but it will deter gross acts of violence that were all too commonly recorded, help vets advise and retrain, and help the FSA clamp down on lawbreaking by providing evidence for prosecutions, should they be necessary.

As its obvious benefits are becoming more widely known, support for making CCTV in slaughterhouses mandatory is growing. More than 170 right hon. and hon. Members have signalled their support for it, whereas a YouGov poll of British adults last year showed that 76% support mandatory CCTV for slaughterhouses with independent monitoring. I note that a petition to No. 10 in support of the measure has now attracted more than 80,000 signatures. I therefore believe that this will be an issue that the House will debate again in the very near future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing this timely debate, given that we have had the recent publication of the Food Standards Agency’s latest survey on animal welfare in slaughterhouses. I am also aware of Animal Aid’s campaign for compulsory CCTV and the revelations in the media today about apparent incidents at the Bowood abattoir in Yorkshire. In addition, I can tell the House that today we have published a report on CCTV in slaughterhouses by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, which is an expert advisory committee to the Government. I have placed a copy of the report in the Library. The committee has been considering the issue for much of the past year and I am grateful to it for its input.

Animal welfare is a matter on which DEFRA receives a huge amount of correspondence. It really matters to the British public and to the Government. From my personal perspective, although I am not a vegetarian, I was a farmer for nine years and it matters to me. When one rears cattle—when one looks after cattle, pigs and other animals—one wants to know that when they are sent off to market—to their end—they will be spared any unnecessary stress or suffering, and that they will be treated with respect. That matters to all good farmers, to the public and to good slaughtermen, too. I will return to the issue of CCTV and the findings of the FAWC report, but first I will deal with the Bowood incident, reported in the media today following the release of secret footage by Animal Aid.

I was first made aware of the Animal Aid video on 6 January and I asked immediately to see some of the footage that Animal Aid had made available to the FSA. Like many others who will have seen the footage, I found the films distressing and gave my full support to the immediate enforcement action that was being taken.

The FSA acted swiftly to suspend the licences of the four slaughtermen involved. It also launched an immediate investigation into the incidents, and that investigation is ongoing. One of the suspended members of staff was subsequently sacked by Bowood, while the remaining three are banned from handling live animals until the investigations have concluded. In addition, I can confirm that the FSA has required the immediate introduction to Bowood of an additional inspector to monitor operations there, and the cost of that additional inspector will be chargeable to the business. The additional officer will have full viewing access to all areas of the plant. Also, I recently asked our deputy chief veterinary officer to commence a piece of work with the FSA to review the way existing regulations are implemented and enforced, with a view to ensuring consistent understanding of what guidelines should be followed to ensure that slaughterhouses abide by the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

The report by the FAWC concludes that there are many benefits to CCTV in slaughterhouses, but also sounds a note of caution, stating that CCTV is no panacea, and while it can be a useful tool to complement existing enforcement and management, it cannot replace other management procedures and inspection regimes. It is tempting to conclude that the footage released by Animal Aid proves a point: that perhaps things like this would not happen if CCTV were in place. However, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, the reality is that the Bowood abattoir where Animal Aid secretly recorded its footage already has CCTV. The presence of CCTV did not prevent those apparent incidents, and the Bowood case is not the first example of apparent welfare breaches, including deliberate abuses, found in slaughterhouses where CCTV is present. My conclusion is that CCTV can only ever be part of the answer to improving animal welfare and preventing abuses. It needs to be backed up with other monitoring methods.

I declare an interest as a livestock farmer, as well as my utter disgust on seeing the film of the Yorkshire slaughterhouse. I am a little concerned that many small slaughterhouses are already closing down, mainly because of the costs of regulation and supervision. Does the Minister agree that the introduction of CCTV should be proportionate, so that small slaughterhouses that have a good record on hygiene and animal welfare can be exempted, as the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) suggested?

I was going to discuss some of the options later. Earlier, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked about costs. The FAWC has said that the costs can range from £3,000 to £10,000; that is the committee’s view, but other estimates are higher, at £25,000. Clearly, it depends on the size of the abattoir and the number of areas covered by CCTV, but we do not think the cost of the equipment is prohibitive. It is relatively modest but it is none the less a real cost and we must be careful not to harm smaller abattoirs, particularly those that have good track records on animal welfare.

As I said, the FAWC report states that there are benefits to CCTV. The committee concludes that it has a useful role in recording incidents, helping enforcers by enabling them to look at the footage to check what actually happened. It can also be used for evidence where welfare abuses are suspected. But the benefits of CCTV go wider than its role as a possible deterrent. For instance, it could allow observation of activities in small or confined spaces where it would otherwise be difficult for the official veterinarian to observe. The report also concludes that CCTV can provide more accurate ante-mortem inspection in the lairage areas. For example, it is apparent that sheep may mask lameness when a stockman or a vet is present but not under remote observation.

CCTV can also be a valuable training tool for operatives to encourage sensitive and sympathetic behaviour towards animals and to spot any bad practices which could result in incidents or near misses. The report concludes that it is necessary to get the balance right between CCTV being present as a deterrent and a “Big Brother is watching you” device, and using it in a positive way to help train operatives.

I want to say a little about the current situation and the uptake of CCTV. The FSA’s survey of compliance with animal welfare regulations in slaughterhouses in 2013, which was published last week, looked at the extent to which CCTV was already present on a voluntary basis in both red meat and white meat slaughterhouses. It is encouraging to note that the 2013 survey recorded that there has been an increase since 2011 in the use of CCTV, and that 43% of red meat and 55% of white meat slaughterhouses now have CCTV installed. By comparison, in 2010 just 7% had CCTV in the stunning and slaughter area and 8% had CCTV in other areas, so progress has been made.

Of course, these figures illustrate only part of the picture, as even those slaughterhouses that have CCTV installed do not necessarily have it in all areas. For example, red meat slaughterhouses tend to have slightly more CCTV in the lairage and unloading areas than in the stunning or bleeding areas. None the less, the trend towards increased installation and use of CCTV in slaughterhouses is welcome. Once we take into account the fact that the larger abattoirs tend to have CCTV and look at the throughput of those slaughterhouses, the results are even more positive. The proportion of animals slaughtered in premises using CCTV is approximately 83% of sheep, 90% of cattle, 92% of pigs and 98% of poultry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley pointed out, the fact that 10 of the major supermarkets demand CCTV in slaughterhouses that supply them has, no doubt, been a factor, but I hope hon. Members agree that it is encouraging that much of the meat and poultry industry has reacted positively for calls over recent years for CCTV introduction.

On enforcement, business operators are primarily responsible for the animals in their care at slaughterhouses, whereas the FSA’s official veterinarians are responsible for monitoring the welfare of animals at slaughterhouses. The report by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee points out that since the responsibility ultimately rests with business operators, they have an interest in ensuring that they do their job effectively. CCTV can assist them in doing that. I agree with my hon. Friend on some of the advantages of CCTV and that it can be a powerful tool. I welcome the increased uptake in CCTV, although I recognise its limitations.

I shall touch briefly on the point about mis-stunning, which my hon. Friend raised. On the statistics concerning mis-stuns, the Government accepted last year that these were unlikely to cover 100% of incidents. Official veterinarians do not monitor all killing operations, and for poultry OVs can only ever record the number of incidents, rather than the number of animals affected. It is important to clarify what we understand by a mis-stun. Previously, only major and critical breaches where the mis-stun caused pain, suffering or distress were recorded, along with the corrective action taken.

Following questions asked in the House, I asked the FSA to review the way it monitors and reports mis-stuns, and it has now issued new instructions to official veterinarians which requires them to record minor breaches, such as where there may be a superficial concussion owing to an inaccurate position and a second stun is applied immediately afterwards. I hope that in future my hon. Friend’s concerns about the accuracy of data will be addressed.

In conclusion, the key question that the debate raises is whether making it mandatory for slaughterhouses to have CCTV installed will improve animal welfare. The last time the Government looked at the issue, which was in 2012, we concluded that mandatory CCTV was not the right way to go. However, I have always been clear that we keep the issue under review and that I have an open mind. I have just received the report from the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, which examines the arguments and evidence for the compulsory installation of CCTV in slaughterhouses. I want to consider its findings fully before reaching a final conclusion. As I have said, I will place a copy of the report in the Libraries of both Houses so that hon. Members can do the same. We have also uploaded the report to the website.

We have had an interesting debate. My hon. Friend, who has pursued the issue tirelessly since being elected, raised some important points. I hope that I have been able to address some of his concerns today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.