It always surprises me how surprised people are when there is an expose over the meat industry. This week has seen Animal Aid release shocking footage over the abuse of sheep at a halal slaughter house in the U.K. To start with I am informed and I am not taking from an ignorant position here as I have spent much time in Parliament looking at the conditions and methods of slaughter, traditional, kosher and halal. I have also spent time in an abattoir learning how it all works and have worked with those involved in the industry. I never thought I would be able to do those things but I believe it is vitally important to be able to speak from an informed position and as my main job is around animal welfare I cannot turn a blind eye to the issue of meat animals. Therefore, I refuse for this debate to be dragged into the religious, “Islamaphobic”, “Anti-Semitic” arena. I refuse to accept that I do not understand the need for different methods of slaughter (mainly the stun vs non-stun method) and I want to focus purely on what it is to be modern British society and how we treat the vulnerable within it. This should be a debate based on science and, even more importantly, based on civilisation.

So in this footage there are vulnerable animals being pinned down and hurt by those in a position more powerful than them. This is just scratching at the surface of what goes on. There has been decades of abuse reported at abattoirs and this is nothing new. Accounts of slaughter men beating animals to death in order to practice their boxing or fighting skills are known, there have even been stories of cigarettes being put out on animals waiting in the line to be killed. I recall vividly a meeting I set up where a ex slaughter man spoke with tears in his eyes about the things he had seen in a slaughterhouse and how much he regretted having been involved in it. He told the audience about the look in the animal’s eyes as it was hoisted upside down to have its throat slit by the halal and kosher method, how long it had taken to die and just how haunted he was by all of it and that was at a decent slaughterhouse. Anyone who has seen lambs playing innocently in fields surely must have to question the morality of sending those baby creatures into a dark blood stained abattoir to face death by being hung upside down and having their throats slit.

I reckon that the majority of meat eaters do not even for a moment think how the process around meat production takes place and this Animal Aid footage has awakened them to the fact that it is not a very pleasant thing. Temple Grandin spent a long time working out how to make the slaughter process less stressful for the animal and her work is highly commendable but the reality is that it will is never gone to be a peaceful, easy event. At the end of the day however you look at it is it murder of a creature that has not chosen to die and is often still very young. if I were to replace that sheep or cow with a dog would it make it clearer for people just how awful it is? If we had seen footage of a Golden Labrador being beaten and have its throat slowly cut with a blunt knife what would the reaction be? Yet what difference is there between these two sentient creatures who exist generally quite a peace alongside us? Only that the Labrador is allowed a place in our home because of thousands of years of domestication and its useful to us. I use this example just to set the context and to ask that we consider how to make slaughter the very best process it can be and stop removing it from our reality and seeing it as so separate to the meat that finally ends up on the plate in front of us. A dog is not different to a lamb in the fact that it can feel pain and fear.

This is not about whether people should or should not eat meat, it is about people waking up to the world around them, where there food comes from and how it is produced and starting to take some control over that. Currently the UK has some of the best farm animal welfare regulations in the world but it is still pretty rubbish and the enforcement of the laws they have put in place is frankly poor. It is being done a great deal with the sector itself rather than independent Government bodies. Trading Standards departments in every local authority which are meant to oversee farms are overstretched and the Food Standards Agency has already shown that it cannot protect us completely with the horse meat scandal. Furthermore, take away the processes of hygiene, methods of slaughter, management and look at the actual way the animals are treated and this is something very difficult to oversee because when being watched by an inspection agency the workers will behave very differently to when they are alone. The Government states that vets are around to watch the processes but they cannot be there all the time, watching every single movement and even if they are who is say they not turn a blind eye. Not all vets enter the profession for the love of animals.

This brings me to the two points which will improve the welfare of animals at slaughter. The first is CCTV or webcams that are linked into centrally overseen centres that operate on a Big Brother basis. There are too many slaughterhouses to watch every one of them all the time but you are at least provide a roving eye which at any point can zoom in on a certain facility at an unknown time which means every time those workers do something unacceptable they do it under the knowledge that they may be watched or filmed. This then needs to be supported by some huge fines, prosecution or inability to continue operations. There is existing legislation with which to set out the acceptable behaviour such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006 with the point about freedom from pain and freedom from fear and distress. How this works on a larger scale is it means we are taking responsibility as a country for the animals in slaughterhouses. At the moment I believe that we acknowledge the animals in fields and we acknowledge the meat on our plates but we do not acknowledge the in-between bit at all as a society and in not doing so we forego our responsibility towards animals. This can also be compared to the Care Home issues which have arisen over years where once an elderly person is placed into a care home we believe as a society that we have done our job in looking after them when actually the real problems start within them when everyone has turned their eyes away. The point about CCTV in abattoirs or in care homes is to say we are not going to look away and forget about you. This whole excuse about it being immoral to watch people is rubbish in this context – if the care workers and slaughter men are doing their job well why should they care if they are being watched and I hardly think the animals or very elderly with dementia or serious illnesses care too much about being watched as long as privacy is provided in the areas it needs to be provided – bathrooms and places where people are doing personal things.

The Government does not want CCTV in slaughterhouses at this moment because they believe it means we would have to do the same in all food production facilities, that is is intrusive and expensive but I think this is just an excuse. Surely the place that deals with food going out to the public is the most important to ensure it is done properly, hygienically and safely and is in all of our interests? Intrusive is a ridiculous excuse as there are camera all over the country watching us in every shop, on trains, on the streets and we know we live in a camera state and as I pointed out above if you have nothing to hide why would you care? Expensive? Well put the cost on the slaughterhouse which is profiting from meat production and then incur a lesser cost for setting up the central station for it all to link into and anyway this is a Government that always seems to find the money to do the other things it wants to do if it is deemed important enough. The meat industry must make millions if not billions of pounds and surely it can provide the finances to set up the central watch point.

The second point to improve welfare is to get rid of the caveat that exists within our law for religious slaughter which is the ability to remove the need for pre-stunning of the animal before death if it is on religious grounds. So for Kosher and Halal slaughter the animal has to be alive and bled to death as set out in their ancient religious texts. They fear that pre-stun means the animal is not conscious and bleeding to death for the slaughter so instead the animal is conscious and feels every moment of the slaughter procedure whilst a prayer is recited. In the UK we have a law that has been formed because it is in the best interests of the animal that it is unconscious before it is killed but more and more meat is being killed using the religious caveat to this law because it can then be sold into every market. The Kosher meat only uses certain parts of the animal meaning there are a lot of left overs that are then sent into the mainstream because whilst Jewish purchasers ask about the production of the meat they are buying, the regular buyers, whether Christian, atheist or whatever, do not ask any questions, they just buy. The slaughterhouse wants to sell every scrap of the meat it has produced so it is better for them to slaughter using the religious methods so it cannot be refused by any potential retailers. This means more animals than necessary are being slaughter with non stun method. So we either say our law is our law in the UK and we demand pre stunned risking outrage from the religious consumers or we demand that all meat is labelled as to its slaughter method. I think the labelling is probably the best solution because of the risk that non stun meat may be imported from places with even poorer standards than the UK if we do not allow any production here. After a long campaign the Defra minister has said we will label meat but not much detail has come out about how that will be done and then it needs the consumer to read that label and make informed decisions and stop being so passive. We must start being active in our buying power and demanding what is best for us, for the animals and for our future generations.

Thousands of years ago mankind whatever religion killed animals with whatever tools they had – often they were bludgeoned to death with rocks or stabbed with sharp instruments. However we have moved on in our civilisation, we have learnt and we have developed. The little science out there points to the pain and distress caused during non-stun slaughter (around 10 minutes for a cow to bleed to death) and that is what we should be going with not the readings of ancient religious texts. However, I do understand people’s need for religion and their deep belief and if they must follow these ancient guidelines then it should be done for that minority only and not done on a wide scale for the masses simply to please that dogmatic minority.

Slaughter and meat production may seem like a small issue to some but it is indicative of much bigger things – how we can progress as a species, how we ensure we are compassionate and kind, and more importantly how we gain knowledge and understanding of what it is to be human and to exist in a world that has limited resources. Unless we stop being so shocked by videos like Animals Asia and start realising this is the world we live in and doing something about it we are only going to go backwards. Surely we want to progress and surely we want to ensure a compassionate and powerful future for generations to come. That is what the Government should be ensuring and food production and sustainability is central to our existence. That is why we should be able to see behind the locked doors into abattoirs via CCTV and why we should be aware of how our food came before us. So whether or not you give a toss about the animals you should sign the petition below demanding CCTV in slaughterhouses:

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/64997