Abattoirs forced into installing CCTV by supermarkets

A number of supermarket chains are demanding that CCTV systems be fitted in the stunning and killing areas of all abattoirs that supply them with meat, as they move to reassure consumers that animals are not being cruelly treated.

Morrisons, M&S, Waitrose, Co-op and Sainsbury's have also promised that CCTV images will be independently monitored – as called for by the charity Animal Aid, which ran a campaign last year involving undercover filming of alleged brutality.

Footage captured by Animal Aid, which was revealed by the Guardian last year, included a sheep being thrown into a pen, another being carried in a wheelbarrow, a pig being kicked, another being hit in the face with a shackle hook, and animals being improperly stunned.

Animal Aid also revealed incidents where equipment for stunning animals was used on their bodies, on the nose and on the ear, rather than correctly on either side of the head.

Tim Smith, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which regulates abattoirs, said last year that the images filmed by Animal Aid were sickening.

He did not condone the methods campaigners had used – allegedly trespassing at abattoirs and planting small, fly-on-the wall cameras – but acknowledged they had triggered a rethink on abattoirs.

Consumers and supermarkets should help force the entire meat industry to follow best practice, he said, later telling an agency board meeting that such problems did not appear isolated.

Last October the FSA board called for more evidence on how useful CCTV could be, saying "the majority of slaughtermen working in the UK" did a difficult job well. However, the following month supermarkets began signing up to Animal Aid's campaign anyway. Morrisons was first in November, followed by M&S in December and others last month.

Most supermarkets have contracts with abattoirs but Morrisons is unusual in owning three, which supply 95% of the pork, beef and lamb it sells. Marks & Spencer, Co-op and Waitrose have signed up too, and Animal Aid said there had been encouraging signs from Tesco.

Sainsbury's has said new requirements from the RSPCA for its Freedom Foods assurance scheme, which take effect later this year, also played a part in its decision to demand the cameras.

Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, has defended his organisation's tactics and said supporters did not break into sites while obtaining images from abattoirs. He added: "Supermarkets are seeing which way their bread is buttered. Their customers want it." His organisation will be running adverts in national newspapers to increase pressure on other retailers and manufacturers to follow their example.

Morrisons' director of corporate affairs, Richard Taylor, said: "High animal welfare is paramount to all we do, from working with farmers to the point of slaughter. That is what our customers expect."

Waitrose said there had been "absolutely no suggestion of poor animal welfare" at any of its dozen suppliers and that signing up with Animal Aid was not difficult because it had "nearly full coverage anyway" and only need to install "a couple of extra CCTV cameras at a couple of processors".

Sainsbury's, which last year suspended its use of an abattoir featured in the Animal Aid campaign until improvements were made, said many suppliers of its own-label meat already had CCTV or were installing it. "We will be asking our remaining suppliers of fresh and frozen meat to implement CCTV in their abattoirs by the end of 2011," the supermarket said in a statement.

The Co-op has told 23 abattoirs used by its suppliers to install CCTV "in all areas of their premises where live animals are handled, including unloading and rest areas up to and including the point of kill".

It added: "The CCTV equipment installed should be capable of recording legible, time- and date-stamped images, and storing these images for a period of not less than six months. The system should be installed and operational by the end of June 2011."

Tesco said: "As part of our ongoing commitment to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare, we have asked our meat suppliers to the UK to install CCTV in their processing facilities. We will be assisting them in this effort over the coming months."

Food Standards Agency figures last October suggested only 7% of nearly 370 UK slaughterhouses had CCTV, although, because of their size, these accounted for 13% of slaughtered cattle, 16% of sheep. 42% of pigs and 40% of poultry.

The union Unison, which represents meat inspectors and some vets in slaughterhouses, said it would wait to see if the introduction of CCTV had a positive or negative impact on workers. But it did not think its use would tackle the main problems it saw in abattoirs, which were "too fast a line-speed, which makes thorough inspections impossible", too few inspections, and dirty carcasses making it through the production line.

Animal Aid said its undercover footage revealed "serious systemic problems" in six abattoirs, including substandard treatment of pigs, sheep and cows before slaughter, and improper stunning. Of all the abattoirs where it had filmed, the campaign group gave only one a relatively clean bill of health.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which investigated allegations at five abattoirs, did not proceed with any prosecutions after becoming aware of similar legal precedents where courts had refused to accept "unlawfully obtained video footage". It dropped an attempt to prosecute a company in Devon and some employees after concluding there was no prospect of a conviction.

Defra believed there were legal problems over the admissibility of evidence obtained by a freelance investigator employed by Animal Aid, who allegedly trespassed on the property to conceal a camera and obtain footage.

Animal Aid would not identify the investigator, but the Guardian last year established he was a 49-year-old former hunt saboteur with a criminal history.

Abattoirs involved said comprehensive measures had since been taken, including installation of CCTV and retraining for staff with responsibility for handling animals.

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