WARNING: This report contains graphic content, viewer discretion is advised.
A halal slaughterhouse where workers were secretly filmed hacking at sawing at animals’ throats, lifting them by their ears and kicking them in the faces, has insisted animal welfare is its “highest priority.”
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched an investigation into the footage from the Bowood Lamb abattoir in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, saying there was "no excuse for treating animals in the way shown on the video" and adding that prosecutions could follow.
In a statement, Bowood Lamb said: "Bowood Lamb makes animal welfare its highest priority. We set very high standards for the way in which animals that pass through our premises are treated and we enforce those standards rigorously.
"Everyone working for us knows and understands the standards we require.
Animal rights group Animal Aid used hidden cameras to record footage over a period of three days in December.
The footage apparently shows:
- A worker hacking and sawing at animals' throats, in direct contravention of Islamic practice. In one instance it took up to five attempts to sever blood vessels.
- Sheep being kicked in the face and head, lifted by their ears, fleeces or legs, and hurled into solid structures.
- A worker standing on the neck of a conscious sheep and bouncing up and down.
- Staff erupting into laughter over a sheep bleeding to death with spectacles drawn around her eyes in green paint.
- Staff taunting and frightening animals by waving knives, smacking them on the head and shouting at them.
- A worker holding a sheep by the throat and pulling back his fist as if to deliver a punch.
The Bowood Lamb statement added: "It is highly regrettable that one of our slaughtermen fell below those standards. As soon as we were aware of this failing we dismissed this staff member for gross misconduct. This was consistent with the approach we would always take in a situation of this type.
"Currently three other members of staff have had their licences suspended because Animal Aid claims that they have committed technical infringements of the regulations relating to religious slaughter. We will await the outcome of any investigation relating to their suspension."
WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW
The law requires abattoirs to stun animals before slaughter to prevent unnecessary suffering, but there are exemptions for Jewish and Muslim producers.
Under the halal code, animals are supposed to be killed quickly, with a single sweep of a surgically-sharp knife. They should not see the knife before they are slaughtered, or witness the death of other animals.
The video footage appears to show that these rules were not adhered to at Bowood, where more than 4,000 sheep were filmed being killed.
Sheep appeared to have knives sharpened in front of them and watched their flock-mates bleeding to death before being shackled and hoisted.
Animals can apparently be seen having their throats hacked and sawed by a worker wearing the traditional Muslim kufi skullcap and muttering the words Allahu Akbar (God is great).
Kate Fowler, head of campaigns at Animal Aid, said the scenes were "inexcusable".
Animal Aid also criticised the poor design of the slaughterhouse.
The group said that sheep fell some distance from a chute on to a slippery floor in the kill area and were often unable to stand.
They were then frequently thrown head-first into a solid upright structure, part of the conveyor, Animal Aid said.
Under UK law, slaughtered animals that have not been stunned must remain in position for at least 20 seconds after their throats are cut, to ensure loss of consciousness.
But 86% of the sheep at Bowood were moved before that amount of time had elapsed, some in as little as one second, according to Animal Aid.
Although Government-appointed vets are supposed to be on hand in all abattoirs the size of Bowood, none were seen during the three days of filming.
Animal Aid said that, when it gained access to the abattoir, it did not know it was a non-stun establishment.
The group is calling for independently monitored CCTV cameras to be compulsory at slaughterhouses.
Slaughterhouses in the UK are regulated by the FSA, which provides operating licences and carries out inspections.
A prepared statement from the FSA said: "The Food Standards Agency takes animal welfare at abattoirs very seriously, which is why we immediately suspended the licences of the slaughtermen involved.
"There is no excuse for treating animals in the way shown on the video and we are therefore investigating the footage with a view to prosecution. We are also continuing to investigate all the circumstances around the incident to ensure proper safeguards are introduced to stop this happening in the future."
An FSA spokesman added: "Four slaughtermen have had their licences suspended and we are investigating.
"It means they can't operate as slaughtermen and work with live animals.
"When the FSA has finished investigating it will need to consider if there is sufficient evidence of a breach of animal welfare legislation to justify a referral to the Crown Prosecution Service, which would decide whether to prosecute or not."
Asked about the allegations, William Woodward, one of the abattoir's directors, said: "We have no comment to make."
A petition demanding an outright ban on slaughtering animals without stunning them first has attracted more than 100,000 backers - but the Government insisted last week that it still had "no intention" of outlawing religious slaughter.
Campaigners backed by celebrities including comedian Ricky Gervais, actress Sadie Frost and Queen guitarist Brian May will now press for a fresh Commons debate on the issue after quickly exceeding the six-figure threshold required on the parliamentary petition site to trigger a possible time slot.
Figures released by the British Veterinary Association last week show that the number of animals undergoing ritual slaughter without stunning has soared in the UK in the past year.
Campaigning by Muslims for traditional methods of slaughter is said to have led to a 60% rise in the number of animals having their throats cut while conscious.
Last year, 2.4 million sheep and goats were killed without being stunned in halal and Jewish shechita abattoirs, according to the BVA.
Animal Aid said it recognised that there was a risk of the video stirring up anti-Muslim feeling, but added: "Withholding release of the footage would be a betrayal of our key mission: to expose and combat animal cruelty."
The Muslim Council of Britain said it is appalled at reports of animal mistreatment at an abattoir purportedly following the principles of halal methods of slaughter.
A spokesman said: "Animal cruelty is wrong and criminal wherever it may occur. That it is being carried out in halal slaughter makes it even more incredulous. Animal welfare should be observed by all slaughterhouses.
"The findings certainly are abhorrent in Islamic practice, and the abattoir must be subject to the full force of the law. In the past, Animal Aid has reported on similar abuses taking place at non-religious UK slaughterhouses.
"There are urgent questions this case raises: since each abattoir is under veterinarian supervision, how were these practices overlooked? We call on the Food Standards Agency to look into this abuse and the flagrant disregard of the very principles of humane slaughter as a matter of urgency.
"These revelations will undermine Muslim consumer trust. It is now of paramount importance, as the Muslim Council of Britain has said repeatedly in the past, to work towards a national set of agreed standards and accreditation in halal methods of slaughter that abides by established Islamic precepts.
"We also believe, to increase trust for the consumers, that the use of CCTV cameras in abattoirs should be seriously considered."
In its statement, Bowood Lamb said: "Bowood Lamb is surprised that Animal Aid targeted our premises, given the stated aim of their campaign is to encourage CCTV in abattoirs.
"Bowood Lamb has had CCTV in our premises for over four years. In addition, whenever our plant is in operation, we have meat inspectors and an official veterinarian on site at all times to ensure that the law is complied with fully.
"Despite the fact that we take all possible precautions, it is impossible to ensure that human beings will never fall below the required standards. We are very pleased that this has been a very rare occurrence in our business but take the appropriate action when, as in this case, it does happen."
The firm called on Defra to use this incident to review its guidance on using the V-restrainer - a piece of equipment designed to funnel animals to slaughter.
Bowood Lamb solicitor Jamie Foster said the equipment works well if used as designed but Government rules mean it cannot be used in this way, leading to animals getting distressed.
The statement said: "While we cannot condone Animal Aid breaking into our plant and undermining the strict hygiene controls we have in place, if one good thing does come out of this incident, we hope it is that Defra may take another look at its interpretation of the rules relating to the V-restrainer.
"This is an excellent piece of apparatus when used properly but, used in the way Defra demands, can increase the stress on both sheep and operators. We hope Defra will be as swift to address this issue as we were to deal with our staff member at the centre of this incident."