Notes for the Meat Hygiene Service to accompany Sturminster Newton abattoir film

Posted on the 12th April 2010

These notes were sent to the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) along with a 50-minute extract from our undercover filming at Sturminster Newton abattoir.

11th March 2010

We filmed 114 cows being stunned on 26th and 27th January 2010 at the Anglo Beef Processors abattoir at Sturminster Newton. Additionally, we filmed the sticking area there on 3rd and 4th February.

These were beef cows and they were stunned by use of a contact firing captive bolt pistol. We understand that this abattoir had recently been refitted and so there is no excuse for the poor practice and legal breaches relating to the equipment and design of the plant.

Note: We have particular concerns over the role and behaviour of one man. He appears to have a supervisory role and we fear he may be the MHS vet. We refer to him as ‘vet/supervisor’ throughout.

Section 1: Examples of problems arising from the absence of head restraint and tail pusher

Head Restraint: Under WASK, a stunning pen for bovines must be constructed so that it ‘restricts the movement of the head of the animal confined in it without causing the animal any avoidable excitement so as to permit accurate stunning’.

The Humane Slaughter Association recommends a passive head shelf but Sturminster Newton has no head restraint at all, which may contribute significantly to the high incidence of bodged stuns, and the additional stress the animals appear to have endured.

Substantial Movement: Similarly, under WASK, a stunning pen for bovines must be constructed so that it ‘prevents any substantial movement forwards, backwards or sideways’.

The variation in size of cows being stunned at Sturminster Newton was significant but – because there is no tail pusher – only the biggest cows were unable to move much once in the pen. All others could move around the pen, making accuracy of shot virtually impossible (see The experience and treatment of young animals section below).

This section of the film shows eight of the many examples of how the stun operator had to track the animals’ heads around the pen in order to get the shot.

Section 2: Habitual use of the goad

The angle of our camera does not reveal the moment when the goad was used on the cows but the stun operator took the goad with him as a matter of routine when he was bringing cows into the stun pen. In a randomly chosen one-hour segment of film, during which 20 cows were stunned, the stun operator picked up the goad and moved towards the cow before the gate had even opened 14 times. This indicates habitual use. The other six cows were loaded by the vet/supervisor, three of them without being goaded, and three of them were apparently goaded because they were reluctant to enter the box.

Seventy per cent of the time, then, the goad was picked up even before the gate was fully open – an open gate offering cows the chance to walk in unaided. This indicates not only habitual use, but also a poor layout of the plant. As we have been told that this is a newly installed set-up, the design should have allowed for stress-free passage for the animals.

According to the Humane Slaughter Association: ‘Electric goads must only be used as a last resort.’ Clearly, for Sturminster Newton, its use is commonplace. So habitual is the use of the goad that, on occasion, the stun operator reaches for the goad, even though the cow is already in the stun box.

Section 3: Two animals in the pen and consequent aggression including goad use

A sign of incompetence/sloppiness is the number of times two cows ended up in the stun box together. An additional concern is the apparent breach of WASK, which states that no person can use an electric goad on a cow unless ‘the animal has room ahead of it in which to move’ and ‘such shocks are applied only to the hindquarters’.

At Sturminster Newton, if two cows entered the stun box, it was usual for the second cow to be goaded in the face (see first three clips of this section). Even if the electrical charge was not activated when the goad was used, it is an offence under WASK to ‘strike, or apply pressure to, any particularly sensitive part of the body of any animal’ (Schedule 3, Part III, 12 (1)).

One particularly worrying incident took place on January 27th. Two cows were crammed in together (4th clip in this section of the film). The first could not move at all. The stun operator hit the second cow with the goad in the face and ribs – possibly using the electric charge – which had no effect. He then used the butt of the goad to hit the animal in the ribs. When that failed, he brought the gate down on the back of the second cow, which also had no effect, apart from causing additional pain.

He continued to hit the cows in the neck, nose, back and side with the goad, and when that didn’t work, he fetched a broom, which he used to hit the second cow on the back and in the ribs (using both ends), and the first cow in the face. A second man arrived and goaded the second cow on his side, which finally caused him to reverse from the pen.

Note: On the second day of filming, the cows entered the pen a lot quicker when the goad was (presumably) being used on them. We believe that the voltage may have been increased.

Section 4: Time in the stun pen

Under WASK, ‘No person shall place, or cause to be placed, any adult bovine in a stunning pen unless the person who is to stun the animal is ready to do so as soon as the animal is placed in the stunning pen’. This law was breached several times during our two days of filming the stunning area, with four significant breaches all taking place on January 26th. The clips are edited for ease of viewing but the full tapes can be supplied on request.

One cow was loaded into the stun box and left for six minutes (Clip 1). The stun was partially delayed while the operator held a conversation with a colleague.

On the same day, a second cow was placed in the stunning pen (Clip 2) and left there for more than an hour. After 32 minutes, an employee came past and looked at her but she was then left for a further 33 minutes. This is wholly unacceptable.

The third clip shows a cow loaded into the stun box by the vet/supervisor long before the stun operator was available. The cow repeatedly moved forwards and back, and tried to turn round, his stress exacerbated by the man we believe could be a vet hitting him on the nose several times, including with his elbow, in contravention of WASK: ‘No person shall strike or apply pressure to any particularly sensitive part of the body of any animal.’ The cow was in the stun box for almost ten minutes.

The fourth example can be seen in the Further examples of the role of the vet or supervisor in breaches and poor practice section of the film (see Section 10 below).

Another example can be seen in The experience and treatment of young animals section of the film (see Section 8 below).

Section 5: Other examples of stress

Animal Aid has filmed at just one other bovine slaughterhouse but that provides a useful comparison of cow behaviour between the two. At Sturminster Newton, the levels of stress in the animals – snorting, vocalisation, pawing at the ground, attempting to turn round – are more frequently apparent. This may be due in part to the poor stun pen design and the breaches of WASK (lack of head shelf and tail pusher) that mean the animals can move around too easily in the pen. It may also be to do with habitual goading and rough handling, or for some other reason not apparent to us.

One indicator of stress is the amount of vocalisation (e.g. Clip 1). According to Temple Grandin: ‘In cattle, the percentage of cattle that vocalize is a sensitive indicator of problems such as excessive electric prod use, slipping in the stunning box, excessive pressure applied by a restraint device and missed stuns. Vocalization scoring can be used to monitor improvements or a deterioration of handling quality. A lone bovine left in a crowd pen or stun box too long will often vocalize. A reduction in the use of electric prods is associated with a significant reduction in the percentage of cattle that vocalize.’

During one hour of filming, in which 24 cows were stunned, we counted the number of vocalisations. While it is not possible to say whether it is the cow we could see in the stun box or one we could not see in the race (or possibly in the lairage, depending on how far away that is) who vocalises, it is possible to hear clear vocalisations when 11 different cows are in the stun box. There are vocalisations a further three times when the stun box is empty. At worst, these figures could indicate that more than half of the cows are vocalising, while at best, it could indicate that 8 per cent are vocalising. (At one stage, it is possible to hear two cows vocalising at the same time, so – if these were the only two cows vocalising throughout the hour’s footage – that would give us the figure of 8 per cent.)

According to the University of Applied Science in Berlin: ‘The vocalisation of animals is always an indicator of distress due to handling and stunning methods. Vocalising cattle often cause excitement and anxiety in other animals. Surveys have shown that an improvement in handling practices and in the training of operators and handlers decreases the amount of vocalising animals.’

Vocalisation of more than three per cent of the animals is considered unacceptable, and anything over 25 per cent indicates a serious problem.

Other examples of behaviour that indicates severe stress can be seen in the other four clips in this section.

Section 6: Examples of multiple stuns

Out of 114 cows filmed being stunned over two days, 14 – that’s 12 per cent – required more than one attempt at stunning. On other occasions, the bolt did not deploy but, although this would have increased the stress levels of the cows, we have not counted those in this figure.

One cow endured four attempts; another endured three attempts; while the remaining twelve cows were shot twice. In all cases, the sound indicates that the bolt does deploy but it is either misplaced or of insufficient power to stun the animal correctly. A close look at the film shows that, on several occasions, the first shot was not correctly placed.

Of the 152 cows filmed post-stun on 3rd and 4th February, six required a second shot, five of them while lying on the ground, and one while already shackled (see next section). Three of these were stunned within half an hour of each other.

Section 7: Shackling while conscious?

There are a number of times when it was questionable whether the ‘stunned’ animals were, indeed, unconscious. For example (Clip 1), one cow was already shackled and hoisted when an additional stun was given.

And in Clip 2, we filmed one cow reacting completely differently to all the others. He dropped but did not roll-out and was dragged from the pen by his head. He thrashed on the floor unlike any other cow and the workers had a lot of trouble getting the shackles on. Despite being stunned again on the ground, this cow continued to kick unlike any other cow we have filmed, and the workers continued to struggle to attach the shackles.

Section 8: The experience and treatment of young animals

On January 26th, four young animals were stunned at Sturminster Newton. Their size highlights the problems of stun pen design, especially regarding the lack of a tail pusher and the depth of the pen.

The vet/supervisor opened the gate to allow the first young cow into the pen, even though there was no stun operator ready (Clip 1). The animal endured a wait of ten minutes and during that time exhibited signs of stress and even managed to turn around completely in the pen, falling down in the process. The vet/supervisor looked on but did nothing to bring a speedy end to this highly stressful situation. When the stun operator did come, he needed to stand on a box and then lean right over the edge of the pen, steadying himself with one hand and with both feet off the floor in order to reach the cow.

Section 9: Further examples of the role of the vet or supervisor in breaches and poor practice

In the first clip, the vet/supervisor opened the gate and loaded an animal into the stun pen. As a second cow entered, he brought the gate down on his head, and then used the goad to get this animal out. As there was no stun operator present, he should not have taken it upon himself to load the animals, and in so doing he breaches Schedule 4, Paragraph 4 (a) of WASK. The animal in the pen was clearly stressed but the man did nothing to speed up the process. The cow was in the stunning pen for 15 minutes.

In the second clip, the vet/supervisor picks up the goad and loads another cow into the stun pen. He later closes the roll-out gate. Such a ‘hands on’ approach might be appropriate if he is a plant employee. If, however, he is a vet, it is highly inappropriate and his role and competency must be questioned. Despite the MHS Chief Executive stating: ‘We ensure our own staff have the most up-to-date knowledge on animal welfare regulations,’ this man has not noticed the lack of head restraint. He appears not to mind the habitual use of the goad. He loads and goads animals into the stun box himself. And he even hit a cow on the nose merely for looking up at him. He also loads a cow into the stun box, who is then left there for 15 minutes, in contravention of WASK.

If this man is a vet, not only does he appear not to know the law, he does not abide by it, either.

Section 10: Explanation required

We can think of no good reason why this employee would hack away at the head and ears of a suspended cow. An explanation is required.

Footnote: Lairaging (still images)

Under WASK, ‘any person engaged in the lairaging of any animal shall ensure that an adequate supply of suitable bedding is provided for all animals kept in the lairage overnight’. Photographs taken in the lairage at night instead show a sparse amount of straw, which was filthy and sodden, and may help explain the dirtiness of some of the animals.

Return to the press release

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