By Sean Poulter
Appalling cruelty, including cigarettes being stubbed out on the faces of pigs, has been revealed in secret filming inside a slaughterhouse.
The footage of pigs being burned, punched and smacked across the head with sharp paddles was captured by animal welfare campaigners.
They reveal the shocking truth of the casual brutality inside one of the country’s biggest abattoirs.
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Beating: Abattoir staff are filmed striking pigs with sharp paddles - even when the animals were severely injured
Despite the clear evidence, the Government, through the Food Standards Agency, has refused to prosecute those involved.
The decision has been condemned by Animal Aid, which carried out the secret filming. It says it is evidence that ministers are putting the commercial interests of the meat industry above welfare.
The secret filming took place at an Essex slaughterhouse run by Cheale Meats, where up to 6,000 pigs are slaughtered every week.
In 2001 the outbreak of a disastrous foot and mouth epidemic which swept through the country was first identified among 27 pigs sent to the plant from the north-east of England.
Brutal: The video opens with several incidents of staff stubbing out cigarettes on pigs' faces
Today, the firm’s website proclaims: ‘Be proud of higher welfare, buy British pork.’
The filming, which took place on secretly installed cameras over four days in March and April, suggests that animal welfare was the last thing on workers’ minds.
Staff were seen stubbing their cigarettes out on the faces of pigs on three occasions, while one of the men landed a punch on the face of a pig which was walking by.
Three seriously injured pigs were forced to crawl through the building to meet their death. Staff were seen pulling the animals by the ears, pushing and kicking them.
Before slaughter, pigs should be stunned using electrified tongs. The tongs should span their brains and render them immediately unconscious.
The filming showed that workers often failed to stun the animals correctly, leaving them screaming in pain. Others were pushed and prodded with electric rods.
Torment: Incorrect stunning, as shown here, leaves pigs in terrible pain
All of these are clear breaches of animal welfare laws. However, the food and farming ministry Defra believes it cannot prosecute based on undercover film footage.
Last year Defra had to drop a similar case against an abattoir in Torquay which had been caught out by Animal Aid footage, after its lawyers determined that there was 'not a realistic prospect of conviction' in a case reliant on hidden-camera video.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is responsible for investigating breaches of welfare and hygiene laws at slaughterhouses - however, Defra is responsible for prosecutions. In this case, the FSA has not even passed on the footage to Defra for a potential prosecution.
The FSA has written to Animal Aid stating: ‘Defra is not prepared to commence prosecution proceedings where the initial allegation is based on CCTV footage gained without the consent of the relevant Food Business Operator.'
A Defra spokesman added: 'It would be totally irresponsible to prosecute when we know we'd lose,' saying that there were 'very strong legal grounds' not to prosecute hidden-camera cases.
This is rejected by Animal Aid, which points out that the legal principle that allows prosecutions based on secret filming has already been established.
Despite images like this, showing a pig bleeding to death as a worker looks on, the Government will not prosecute the abattoir
For example, prosecutions are being brought against workers at a care home who were secretly filmed by the BBC’s Panorama programme mistreating vulnerable residents.
Head of campaigns for Animal Aid, Kate Fowler, said: ‘Since we first began investigating English slaughterhouses, we have been pressing everyone involved – regulators, industry bodies and the Government – to act decisively to end the cruelty.
‘At first, they appeared contrite and promised action but now their words ring hollow.
‘If Defra won’t prosecute these flagrant breaches of the law; if the vets can’t or won’t act to stop the cruelties; and if the slaughterhouse owners look the other way, who is there to stop animals from being abused at the most vulnerable time of their lives?
‘It seems that all involved are content to keep quiet and to allow these cruelties to continue. So much for the UK having the best welfare standards in the world.’
Violent: Staff were filmed using force to move the pigs around the slaughterhouse
A spokesman said the footage at the slaughterhouse was obtained through trespass, while the Panorama filming was not.
He said: ‘Animal cruelty is unacceptable, and we vigorously pursue action against accusations of cruelty wherever we can.
‘It is wholly disingenuous to draw comparisons between this case and that of filming in a care home, because this video evidence was obtained unlawfully through trespass.
‘As the RSPCA has found in previous cases, this would get it thrown out of court and do absolutely nothing to help reduce the suffering of animals.’
The FSA said it has taken action to end the cruelty at the plant.
It revoked the licence of one slaughterman identified in the footage, while another slaughterman’s provisional licence had already expired and has not been renewed.
The organisation has also increased monitoring at the plant to avoid any repeat.