A National Disgrace: Catalogue of Animal Suffering At Scottish Abattoirs Revealed

23rd April 2017 / United Kingdom

Thousands of farm animals have suffered in more than 700 serious breaches of welfare rules in Scotland in less than two years, according to official inspection reports.

Cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens have been found injured, ­emaciated, diseased or dead on arrival at abattoirs.

Numerous animals were slaughtered while heavily ­pregnant or had to be repeatedly stunned before they were killed.

There was “cannibalism” among chickens, “unnecessary pain” endured by cattle and “massive bruising” on sheep, according to inspection reports by government watchdog Food Standards Scotland (FSS) obtained by the Bureau. In other cases there were “signs of suffering”, “evident stress” and “extensive maggot infestation”.

One slaughterhouse worker was said to have been “intimidating and vicious” with a sheep. A driver was seen kicking a pig and another dragging a pig by its tail.

Politicians and animal welfare campaigners describe the revelations as “appalling”, “absolutely horrifying” and “truly shameful”. They are demanding tough new curbs by the Scottish government.

Scottish ministers stressed that mistreatment of animals was “unacceptable”, but insisted that “all required enforcement action” was taken. The meat industry said it complied with operating regulations, and farmers pledged to work hard to maintain Scotland’s “excellent track record”.

The SNP MSP Gail Ross promised to pursue ministers as a matter of urgency to find out where standards had failed – and called for more CCTV in abattoirs. “We pride ourselves on being a nation of animal lovers and to hear of these breaches makes me feel physically sick,” she said.

“I really hope that the authorities crack down on those involved and that measures are put in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The campaign group Compassion in World Farming demanded that farmers who broke animal welfare law should be made to repay public subsidies. “The data shows widespread suffering and is alarming,” said the group’s chief policy advisor, Peter Stevenson.

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“This regular suffering undermines the reputation of Scotland’s livestock sector. We call on the Scottish government to urgently convene a meeting of all the relevant enforcement bodies to develop a strategy to achieve hugely improved enforcement of the legislation on welfare on-farm and during transport and slaughter.”


Reported incidents at Scottish abattoirs 01.5.15 – 31.01.17
Type of incident Number of times recorded
Killed in the late stages of pregnancy 130
Bruised, injured, wounded or with broken legs 100
Poor health, weak, emaciated or diseased 92
Inadequate conditions or equipment 47
Multiple or inadequate stunning, or deficient procedures 45
Other flawed procedures 38
Overcrowded vehicles or pens 7
Under legal investigation 4
Not defined 243

Source: Food Standards Scotland

Abattoirs identified

The names and details of the abattoirs and farms where the breaches were found have all been redacted. But in a joint investigation with Scottish outlet The Ferret, the Bureau identified seven slaughterhouses where problems have been highlighted in separate audits carried out by FSS inspectors in 2016.

These include the 2 Sisters poultry plants in Coupar Angus, Perth and Kinross; Scotbeef (Inveurie) in Aberdeenshire; Shotts Abattoir in North Lanarkshire; Wishaw Abattoir in North Lanarkshire; and Avonvogie Abattoir on the Isle of Islay.

The Green MSP Alison Johnstone, who is vice convenor of the Scottish parliament’s cross-party group on animal welfare, urged the Scottish government to take action. “These figures are absolutely horrifying,” she said.

“That such unnecessary cruelty and suffering is being inflicted on defenceless animals is truly shameful, and it is essential that those responsible receive appropriate penalties and sentences.”

Johnstone argued that CCTV coverage should be increased in slaughterhouses as a matter of urgency. In September 2016 the SNP conference agreed a motion backing legislation to make CCTV compulsory and to impose requirements on siting and use.

The Edinburgh animal protection charity OneKind also demanded mandatory CCTV. “The number of severe animal welfare breaches revealed in this investigation is appalling,” said the group’s policy consultant, Libby Anderson.

“The thought of cattle requiring multiple attempts at stunning, animals being killed in late pregnancy or animals arriving for slaughter bruised and with broken legs is simply unacceptable.”


The FSS inspectors logged animals arriving for slaughter emaciated, bruised or in the later stages of pregnancy. (Image via Shutterstock)

There is also a team of specialist auditors who carry out more detailed inspections throughout the year to determine overall compliance with food law, animal welfare and hygiene standards.

These inspections take place on a rolling basis, with audit frequency dependent on previous performance. Auditors record any non-compliances found, rating them as minor, major or critical depending on their severity.


Avoidable pain, distress and suffering

A major non-compliance, according to FSS criteria, is one that is “likely to compromise public health (including food safety), animal health and welfare or may lead to the production and handling of unsafe or unsuitable food if no remedial action is taken.” A critical non-compliance is classified as where the contravention “poses an imminent and serious risk to public health (including food safety), animal health and welfare.”

FSS’s most recently released audit reports – summarising findings from inspections carried out between January and October 2016 – show that major and critical non-compliances were found in seven Scottish abattoirs, including red meat and poultry plants.

Three abattoirs – 2 Sisters Poultry, Scotbeef and a further red meat plant – failed to meet an FSS requirement that animals are “spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering during their killing and related operations.” Two establishments, including Shotts Abattoir, failed to ensure that “stunning methods ensure quick and effective loss of consciousness and sensibility followed by death.”

Wishaw Abattoir had a critical non-compliance on the requirement to ensure that stunning was quick and effective. Earlier in the year the plant was given a major non-compliance rating for failing to ensure that “personnel demonstrate appropriate level of competency”. Avonvogie Abattoir was found to have a major non-compliance of a requirement that “standard operating procedures are developed, implemented and maintained”.

Unison, the trade union that represents meat inspectors, was “disgusted, appalled and saddened” by the extent of animal welfare breaches. “The level of inhumanity applied to animals before slaughter and during slaughter is a national disgrace,” said the union’s UK national officer, Paul Bell.

“It proves that industry cannot be trusted to police itself. We must have 100 percent supervision and a camera system operated and maintained by FSS, not contractors. A civilised society should do nothing less.”

In August 2016 the Bureau revealed that there had been more than 4,000 severe breaches of animal welfare regulations at abattoirs in England and Wales in two years. These included instances of chickens being boiled alive and trucks of animals suffocating or freezing to death.

The Scottish government urged anyone concerned about animal welfare abuses to report them. “Any mistreatment of animals, wherever it occurs, is completely unacceptable and given the seriousness of these figures we absolutely cannot be complacent,” a spokeswoman told The Ferret.

“We are satisfied that FSS fully investigate any welfare breaches which have taken place at Scottish slaughterhouses and take all required enforcement action. Scotland has high welfare standards at slaughter, with strict legal requirements that must be adhered to.”

There is an official veterinarian present at every approved slaughterhouse “to monitor animal welfare and to take immediate enforcement action if any breaches whatsoever are observed,” the spokeswoman added.


Response from the watchdog

FSS stressed that it took animal welfare at abattoirs extremely seriously. “All animal welfare breaches that occur within approved slaughterhouses in Scotland are investigated as a priority and action is taken by qualified official veterinary personnel,” said director of operations Ian McWatt.

“We take proportionate action in relation to animal welfare breaches, which range from verbal advice, enforcement letters, welfare enforcement notices to investigations with a view to providing reports to the Procurator Fiscal, and if required the suspension or revocation of slaughterer’s certificate of competence.”

McWatt confirmed that reports on a number of cases were being prepared for referral to the fiscal. “Animal welfare breaches that relate to transport or originating on farm are reported to the relevant enforcement authorities for further investigation,” he added.

“Food Standards Scotland delivers animal welfare controls at slaughter on behalf of Scottish Government and we provide them with regular updates.”


20 extracts from the official log
Date Extract
06/05/15 Staff hanging up chickens “failed to assess consciousness”
01/06/15 Five pigs dead on arrival at abattoir
22/07/15 “Animal with severe head injuries”
07/09/15 Animal “broke its leg in the crush pen”
01/10/15 Cow with “massive milk overflow”
23/11/15 Transport close to giving birth “may have caused unnecessary pain and distress to the animal”
18/10/15 “Severe bruising in highland cows”
05/02/16 Four sheep “probably suffocated”
12/02/16 Driver seen “kicking one pig after unloading”
21/04/16 Sheep with “massive bruising extended around whole carcass”
27/04/16 Cow with “severe lameness” and “full udder with signs of blockage or inflammation” causing “evident stress and unnecessary suffering”
27/04/16 Six pigs and five sheep packed in “overcrowded vehicle”
01/06/16 Worker “having an intimidating and vicious behaviour towards one sheep”
22/06/16 Driver “pushing and dragging animal by its tail”
18/07/16 Chickens with “very poor feather condition” and a 14 per cent mortality rate “explained by cannibalism”
18/08/16 Cattle “in very poor condition” with spine “extremely prominent”
25/08/16 Sheep with “extensive maggot infestation on wound”
09/11/16 “Numerous conscious birds hung by one leg only opposed to being shackled by both legs”
15/12/16 “Horns were penetrating through the skin and soft tissues” meaning “animal suffered for a long period of time”
26/01/17 “Very high levels of footpad dermatitis associated with hock and breast burns”

Source: Food Standards Scotland

The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers maintained that it complied fully with all FSS plant operating regulations. “While only a tiny percentage of the reported welfare issues actually relate to abattoirs in Scotland, the association and its member companies give all such reports their full attention and have carried out all necessary corrective action to avoid future issues.”

The National Farmers Union in Scotland urged members to respond to any regulatory notices, and to ensure livestock care met the high standards that the rules demand and consumers expect.

“Scottish farmers and crofters have an excellent track record on animal health and welfare and that is a key element of the reputation we enjoy as producers,” said union president Andrew McCornick. “We must all work hard to preserve that.”

Responding to the Ferret and the Bureau, 2 Sisters poultry firm said the highest standards of animal welfare were always a top priority. Its facility had complied with 77 criteria, and had been graded as satisfactory overall.

A company spokesman said: “A single case of historic non-compliance on birds held before slaughter was highlighted, which was picked up on FSS review of our own welfare officer’s records. Due to machinery breakdown, birds were housed in our holding area overnight, as agreed by veterinary staff.

“They were monitored by welfare officers throughout, before proceeding to slaughter at 6am. This is technically measured as a non-compliance, but does not require any further action, and illustrates the depth and transparency of the FSS audit process.”

Other abattoirs audited by FSS did not respond to requests to comment.

Such reassurances are unlikely to satisfy animal rights campaigners. “This data is a damning insight into the brutality of farming and slaughter in Scotland,” said the director of Animal Aid, Isobel Hutchinson.

“Animals arrived at the slaughterhouse with infected open wounds, abscesses, lesions, back injuries, breast burns, and broken limbs. Some gave birth during transport or soon after. Others were found to be carrying full-term calves only when they were cut open after slaughter.”

The FSS inspection reports supported what Animal Aid had discovered from seven years of undercover investigations in England, Hutchinson argued. “It shows without a shadow of a doubt that the business of slaughtering animals is brutal and all too often is conducted without a thought for either the law or the appalling suffering of the animals involved.”


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