Why did DEFRA fail to prosecute abattoir? - Veterinary Practice
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Why did DEFRA fail to prosecute abattoir?

continues the series of reflections on
issues of current concern

SOMETIMES the law is an ass and sometimes it is those who enforce it that deserve to wear that accolade “proudly” on their sleeve. It is the latter scenario that can be aptly applied to DEFRA in the light of its recent decision not to prosecute the owners of Cheale Meats’ Brentwood abattoir for breaches of animal welfare legislation. The case is well documented but for those who are unfamiliar with it, a brief recap. The campaign group Animal Aid carried out secret filming of slaughtermen at work at Cheale Meats’ abattoir earlier this year. The film appears to show numerous incidents of animal welfare abuse including pigs being kicked and punched by staff, beaten with bats and having cigarettes stubbed out on their faces. In addition, there is evidence of incorrect electrical stunning and the illegal use of electric goads. I am savvy enough to realise that videos can be edited to reveal something that is not quite the truth. It would appear, however, that here we had something of a coup. There was clear evidence of illegal activity that at the very least needed to be probed and questioned in a court of law in order to establish the truth and bring to book any party that was judged to be guilty as a result.

Deciding the merits

Not so, it seems. DEFRA, in its wisdom(?), has decided not to pursue the case because the evidence was obtained covertly and therefore illegally. To which my answer would be: then prosecute the abattoir owners for animal welfare breaches and Animal Aid for illegal film making. The courts could then decide the merits of each case. Being somewhat cynical by nature, I can’t help believing that DEFRA’s decision is based more on a yellowbellied
lack of willingness on its part to pursue the case than on any highminded
moral stance against covert filming. Surely it is in the public interest to at least put the evidence before the courts and let the judiciary decide on its
admissibility or otherwise. Surely DEFRA, with all its expertise and resources, could mount a robust and credible argument that the evidence
should be considered. And if the accused were foolish enough to take the
stand, it would be interesting to see what explanation they offered for their
behaviour. Better, though, it seems to DEFRA, to “sweep it under the carpet” and deal with it “in house”. Perhaps it was concerned that awkward questions might be asked about what on earth the FSA regulators at the abattoir were doing while all this was going on.

Bizarre decision

What makes DEFRA’s decision even more bizarre is that just a few weeks
later it was endorsing the launch of the British Pig Executive’s (BPEX) document 20:20 Pig Health and Welfare. There is even a photograph in an
alternative veterinary publication of a smiling CVO holding the document as
a ringing endorsement of DEFRA’s commitment to improving pig welfare. (What, one wonders, does the CVO think about the Cheale Meats’ incident
and what was his role, if any, in the decision not to prosecute?). The main thrust of the 20:20 document seems to be that by improving pig health, we can improve pig welfare. Well, up to a point would be my considered reply. Of course, if pigs are unhealthy their welfare will be compromised by the discomfort of feeling unwell. But perversely, one could argue that if pigs are confined in intensive systems where “good” or “bad” welfare is frequently judged in terms of whether living space is above or below a certain number of square centimetres per kilogram of pig, then the better you feel physically, the worse will be your frustration with the environment in which you live and the worse will be your mental well-being.

Overcrowded environments

We all know that when we are feeling a bit below par we can’t necessarily be bothered by what is going on around us and are more than content to languish in our beds and let the world pass us by. But once we’re on the mend, the frustrations of confinement soon become apparent and we are far more likely to want to pick up our beds and walk. I have it fairly clear in my mind that at present in the UK, and no doubt in most of the developed
world, the greatest detriment to pig welfare is the sterile, overcrowded, intensive environments that many pigs are reared in. Environments that show no respect at all for the telos of the pig do not and cannot support
good pig welfare. As an example, the dilemma of how to provide pigs reared
on slats with a meaningful substrate (as required by the law) to explore and root about, remains just that, a dilemma. Equally, how to provide sows in
farrowing crates with the same. The new BPEX document does not appear to address this dilemma in any meaningful way. Yes, on page 9 it has a few short paragraphs on welfare which mention finding solutions to tail biting,
tail docking, teeth clipping, etc., but it stresses (understandably) that progress in improving pig welfare must not be at the expense of deterioration in other areas, e.g. production costs that are unsustainable.

No genuine improvements

What I fear we will be left with is a strategy that tries to reduce disease and thereby improve productivity whilst no genuine improvements in the mental-being of the pigs (whilst no doubt genuinely desired by the authors) will be forthcoming. I don’t pretend to have a solution to this. We all of us know how pigs would choose to live if given that choice (in family groups outdoors with plenty of available shelter from the elements and substrate with which to nest build), and we all know that the vast majority reared in the developed world will fail to experience anything remotely approaching this. Providing the “powers that be” are honest and transparent about this, then I really have no gripe. What I object to is the hypocrisy of feigning great concern and interest when the right photo opportunity arises, and the complete lack of spine when the opportunity to prosecute the perpetrators of flagrant welfare abuses is foregone with a moralistic shrug of the shoulders. I have a feeling that the decision not to pursue the Cheale Meats’ abattoir case might, and indeed should, come back to haunt DEFRA in the future.

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