PART TWO: The killing business


The Death Toll


The number of animals killed for food worldwide in 1998 was 43.2 billion (2).

This included:

290 million cattle, buffalo and calves
1.1 billion pigs
802 million sheep and goats
41.1 billion chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese


The total number of animals killed for food in UK slaughterhouses was 883.319 million in 1998 (excludes cattle slaughtered under Over Thirty Months Scheme, Calf Processing Aid Scheme & selective cull). This included:

2.3 million cattle
18.7 million sheep
16.3 million pigs
792 million broiler chickens
35 million turkeys
18 million ducks
1 million geese
10,000 deer
9,000 goats
TOTAL = 883.319 MILLION (3)

Number of animals killed per second in the UK = 28

Number of animals killed per minute in the UK = 1,700

Number of animals killed per hour in the UK = 100,000

Number of animals killed per day in the UK = 2.4 million

Number of animals killed per week in the UK = 17 million

How many slaughterhouses?

According to MAFF there were 567 licensed slaughterhouses operating in the UK in March 2000.

Number of licensed slaughterhouses in:

England - 453

Scotland - 55

Wales - 45

Northern Ireland - 29


Welfare in slaughterhouses is governed by The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995. The legislation implements EC Council Directive 93/119/EC on the Protection of Animals at the Time of Slaughter or Killing. It is supplemented by three MAFF 'pocket guides' which highlight basic aspects of the law.

UK legislation: key points

  • Care should be taken not to frighten, excite or mistreat animals which are not delivered in containers. Animals should not be lifted or dragged by the head, horns, ears, feet, tail, fleece, 'or any other part of its body in such a way as to cause it unnecessary pain or suffering.'
  • Animals should not be led or driven over any ground or floor which may cause the animal to slip or fall.
  • Nobody should strike, or apply pressure to, any particularly sensitive part of the body of any animal. Nobody is allowed to crush, twist or break the tail of any animal or grasp the eyes of any animal. Nobody is allowed to hit or kick an animal.
  • An animal should not be stunned, slaughtered or killed unless restrained 'in an appropriate manner in such a way as to spare it any avoidable pain, suffering, agitation, injury or contusions'.
  • Animals must be stunned before they are killed (unless killed by religious methods) and the stun must cause an immediate loss of consciousness which lasts until death.
  • In England and Wales, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs should not be bled out within sight of each other.
  • Bleeding out should be 'rapid, profuse and complete', should be completed before an animal regains consciousness and should be carried out by severing at least one of the carotid arteries or the vessels from which they arise.

Once an animal's throat has been cut, no 'dressing procedures' should be carried out for specified lengths of time: Turkeys & geese - not less than 2 minutes; Other birds - not less than 90 seconds; Cattle - not less than 30 seconds; Sheep, goats, pigs and deer - not less than 20 seconds. (5)


In 1995, the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) took over responsibility from local authorities for enforcing slaughter and hygiene regulations in abattoirs. Originally, the MHS was an executive agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF). It is now an executive agency of the newly established Food Standards Agency.

Abattoirs are inspected by Official Veterinary Surgeons (OVSs), Meat Hygiene Inspectors (MHIs) and meat technicians. OVSs are supervised by Principal OVSs (POVSs) who are responsible to the six regional directors of the MHS. Regional directors are responsible to the director of operations at the MHS headquarters in York. (6)

The OVS is responsible for the enforcement of the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995. S/he is supposed to fill in and file a daily animal welfare report and also submit a monthly welfare report to the MHS Regional Office. However, the OVS is only required to be present for part of the day. Principal OVS Jane Downes, who is based at the MHS's York headquarters, told Viva! that, 'OVSs must observe slaughter as frequently as possible and at least once per day...'. (7)

In Viva!'s view this is inadequate - the OVS will not necessarily gain the full picture of welfare standards that is needed in order to complete the official documentation. In particular, if the OVS is absent at the end of a working day s/he will not be able to observe whether standards deteriorate as staff become tired. US researcher Temple Grandin says, 'It is highly recommended to evaluate the beginning and end of work shifts. Results of the survey reported here indicated that the number of ineffective stuns during the first attempt on an animal, using a captive-bolt stunner, increased late in the shift, when operators were fatigued.' (8)

Viva! also fears that both OVSs and MHS staff spend the majority of their time monitoring hygiene post-killing and little time monitoring the treatment of live animals by slaughterhouse staff. Visits to slaughterhouses by Viva! investigators have confirmed this - MHS staff were seen spending virtually all their time in the slaughter hall rather than observing the welfare of live animals in the lairage and during stunning.

In January 2000, Viva! asked the Meat Hygiene Service whether there is a percentage of time for which a member of MHS staff must be observing stunning and killing process. We also asked who is responsible for animal welfare if an OVS or MHI is not observing stunning and killing.

Principal OVS Jane Downes would not provide the specific answers we required. She replied that, 'All staff working with animals have a moral and statutory duty to protect animal welfare' and that, 'animal welfare standards must be monitored continually by MHS staff and be an integral part of their work.' (7) In their Animal Welfare Survey 2000, the MHS simply say that, 'The MHS will continue to monitor animal welfare at least once each day that the premises is slaughtering and more frequently where the throughput, species and welfare procedures demand an increased level of surveillance.' (9)

Jane Downes also informed Viva! that, 'Most larger slaughterhouses also have a trained welfare officer.' (7) However the MHS themselves admit that the level of trained staff within abattoirs is inadequate. In their Animal Welfare 2000 Survey, the MHS say that, 'Those persons responsible for the welfare of the live animal have not always received training...' (9). In their 1997/8 Survey they say that 30% of red meat slaughterhouses were recorded as having little or no formal staff training in animal welfare. In the poultry sector, they say that '50% of plants had no staff who had undergone formal training.' (10)

OVS Recruitment Difficulties

In 1998, the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings over actual levels of OVS presence in red meat slaughterhouses in the UK (6). The UK government admitted that OVS levels were not as required under EU legislation and explained that the UK was having practical difficulties in recruiting veterinary surgeons willing to undertake OVS work. Government targets have been set for full compliance with the legislation.

A 1999 EU report on poultry abattoirs states that, 'The frequency and duration of the presence of the Official Veterinary Surgeon is not as required in EC legislation in establishments.' (6)

Viva! questions how animal welfare legislation can be adequately enforced when the OVS presence in UK abattoirs is below the legal minimum.

Hygiene Assessment Scores

The Hygiene Assessment System (HAS) was set up in the UK as a tool for hygiene monitoring. Abattoirs are given a monthly published score (maximum 100) which is supposedly indicative of hygiene standards in that plant. Each year, the Agriculture Minister sets national targets for HAS scores throughout the UK. The achievement of these goals is linked to a performance related pay package which can potentially lead to a salary bonus of 12% for management at MHS central and regional level. (6)

The EC Food and Veterinary Office investigated the HAS as part of their report on poultry abattoirs. They conclude that there are, 'a number of severe shortcomings of the use of the system and of the system itself.' (6)

They discovered that the Hygiene Assessment System and the day books of the Official Veterinary Surgeon did not mention a number of 'severe deficiencies' relating to the hygiene requirements for staff, premises, equipment and implements and for slaughter and the handling of fresh meat. They conclude that, 'There seems to be a tendency that parts of the meat industry (some producers and buyers) use the HAS-scores as a commercial asset. There seems to be an obvious risk that the OVSs and POVs are being put under pressure by the MHS-management and the plants management to give higher scores.'

Animal Welfare Survey

The Meat Hygiene Service regularly publishes an Animal Welfare Review which reviews all aspects of animal welfare in slaughterhouses. The survey is based on check lists which are completed by Official Veterinary Surgeons during a given time period (typically one week).

In the Animal Welfare Review 2000, the authors conclude that, 'The overall result demonstrates a very high level of compliance with Regulations. Notwithstanding, there are several areas which are identifiable as poorly enforced at the time of the Review.' (9)

Viva! is concerned that, as with the Hygiene Assessment System, OVSs will be under extreme pressure from plant management to give higher scores to abattoirs than they actually merit. However, in the absence of other statistical reports, we have used information from the MHS Review in this report.

It should be noted that the MHS had technical difficulties when inputting the data for the 2000 Review. They have recognised the recording of 'inappropriate data' and have acknowledged that, despite attempts to rectify the situation, some results may 'appear to be anomalous'. (9)

Waiting to die

Whether animals are 'humanely' stunned before slaughter or not, they will suffer stress whilst waiting to be killed. N.G. Gregory from Bristol University's Department of Food Animal Science studied the effects of pre-slaughter stress on meat quality and explains that, 'There are many ways in which animals suffer during the preslaughter period.' (11) They include:

Dehydration: Animals may not be provided with water at market or during their journey to the slaughterhouse and may arrive dehydrated. Gregory explains that, 'The effects of severe dehydration include severe thirst, nausea, a hot-dry body, dry tongue, loss of co-ordination and concentrated urine of a small volume.'

Emotional and temperature stress during transport: The unfamiliarity of being on board a transporter causes fear in animals and if they are cooped up with others who they do not know, they may start fighting. The noise and jolting of the transporter also causes stress and cows, pigs, horses and birds are at particular risk of suffering from motion sickness.

Some animals die because of the heat which develops in the closely confined conditions on board the transporter. Gregory explains that during transport, animals are not able to express all the behaviours which normally allow them to keep cool - like seeking shade, wallowing, licking their fur or stretching their wings and legs. While the truck is moving, wind may be able to reach the animals through slats or crates but if the truck breaks down or gets stuck in traffic, they will literally start baking alive.

Torn skin, bruising and injury: Caused by rough handling of animals for example beating them with sticks when they refuse to move forward or dragging them along the ground when they fall down. Gregory explains that, 'The insults which lead to bruising may be painful and the swelling and inflammation associated with a bruise lead to a longer-lasting pain.'

The killing process

When mammals arrive at the slaughterhouse, they will be unloaded into the lairage. Each animal is then driven to the stunning pen. Sheep and pigs may be stunned in pens in groups or placed into a V shaped conveyor belt system so that each approaches the stunner individually. After being stunned, animals are shackled by one or both legs, hoisted onto the line and knifed. They are then left to bleed to death (see UK legislation: key points for minimum bleeding times). 'Dressing procedures' are next when animals will be skinned (or have their bristles removed in the case of pigs - often in a scalding tank) and have their head and legs removed. Animals are then disembowelled and, in the case of larger animals such as cattle and pigs, cut in half. The carcasses are inspected before being chopped into pieces and packaged up for shop and supermarket shelves.

Birds will arrive at the slaughterhouse crammed into the crates which are loaded onto transporters. They are taken out and hung upside down by their legs onto a moving conveyor belt. (see Part 7: Poultry Slaughter, page 47) - unless they are to be stunned with gas in which case they will be stunned whilst still inside the transport crates. The birds pass through an electric waterbath in an attempt to render them unconscious before the have their throats cut - usually by an automatic throat cutter. After they have been left to bleed out for a period they are plunged into a scalding tank to remove their feathers. Birds will then have any remaining feathers plucked, have their heads and feet removed and be eviscerated before being packaged up for the supermarket.

Modern slaughter plants are highly mechanised and only need a limited number of staff. In fact, they operate just like any other efficient factory production line. The difference is that the goods being processed are live animals rather than cars or televisions.

Mr. R. Cawthorne, chairman of Invicta Lamb Ltd explains that slaughterhouse throughputs range from 10 cattle units a day (very small) to 400 (very large). A cattle unit is, apparently, the term used to describe a certain 'quantity' of animals - whatever the species. He says that, 'A European cattle unit is generally understood to be one beef animal or five pigs or 10 sheep'. (12) This gives an indication of the lack of interest in the individual animal at slaughterhouses. An animal is simply seen in terms of the quantity of animal flesh that can be sold once s/he is dead.

Shrouded in secrecy

Members of the public are rarely allowed to visit slaughterhouses. In October 1999, Viva! wrote to slaughterhouses local to the charity's HQ requesting permission to visit and observe the slaughter process for ourselves. We were rejected on the grounds that the companies' insurance policies do not allow outside visitors. Below is a selection of the responses we received (13):

'Whilst I'm not unsympathetic to your objective I regret that it will not be possible to arrange a conducted tour of our slaughter Plant, as we have quite specific insurance limitation, and although some non-trading persons seeking to make a visit do sometimes claim that they are adequately covered by their own insurance this is not an acceptable arrangement.'

R.R. Cawthorne, Chairman, Invicta Lamb Ltd.


'Regret we are unable to help you - insurance regulations!'

The Manager, Forge Farm Meats Ltd.


'We are sorry that owing to the fact of the Vegetarian Organisation costing us money due to Vandalising our Butcher Shop and Abattoir we under no circumstances will have you on the premises.'

A. Ballard, Secretary, Ken Ballard Ltd.

The government's own advisory body, The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), has faced similar problems. FAWC are currently producing a report on the welfare of animals at slaughter and in their latest annual review, they say that although some slaughterhouses have allowed access, 'we are extremely disappointed that some of the larger slaughterhouses felt they were too busy to host a visit.' (14)

Members of the public, media and representatives of government advisory bodies and animal welfare charities should have the right to visit slaughterhouses and observe the killing process. Assurances of high welfare and hygiene standards within abattoirs based solely on reports from government and industry representatives will do nothing to alleviate our, or the public's, concerns.

Slaughtermen: Training and Licensing

The Farm Animal Welfare Council conducted a major review of red meat slaughterhouses as part of a report which was published in 1984. They were particularly concerned at the lack of training given to slaughterhouse staff. They concluded that some slaughtermen had little understanding of the needs of the animals they were handling and, 'had evidently been given no formal training other than purely mechanical instructions on the operation of the equipment they were handling and even that often left much to be desired.' They warned supervisors to, 'be particularly aware of the danger of slaughtermen becoming so inured to the killing process that consideration of the animal is forgotten.' (15)

16 years later, has the situation improved? Under the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995, slaughtermen are required to have a licence to cover the relevant species, operations and equipment. The regulations state that, 'no person shall engage in the movement, lairaging, restraint, stunning, slaughter or killing of an animal unless he has the knowledge and skill necessary to perform those tasks humanely and efficiently.' (5)

In order to obtain a licence, a trainee slaughterman needs to obtain a certificate of competence from an official veterinary surgeon. Trainee slaughtermen first obtain a provisional licence, meaning that they can only work under the direction of slaughtermen holding a full licence or a veterinary surgeon.

The OVS is supposed to assess the performance and knowledge of a trainee slaughterman before granting a Certificate of Competence. MAFF's 'Guidance Note on the Licensing and Training of Slaughtermen' (January 1996) explains that the assessment is not a 'formal examination' and that the trainee's skills will usually be observed under normal working conditions - either in one session or over a period of time. The trainee is also required to have 'adequate knowledge' of welfare regulations (16).

The Guidance Note recommends 'on-the-job' training as being the 'most effective' way of gaining practical experience. So, before obtaining a licence, a trainee slaughtermen can start 'practising' provided that he is in the company of a slaughterman who already holds a licence.

It is commonplace for slaughterhouses to have no staff who have undergone formal training. The 1997/8 MHS Animal Welfare Survey says that 30% of red meat slaughterhouses were recorded as having little or no formal staff training in animal welfare. In the poultry sector, they say that '50% of plants had no staff who had undergone formal training.' (10)

The lack of training in UK abattoirs contravenes advice from the Scientific Veterinary Committee of the European Commission. They say that, 'The personnel involved in pre-slaughter handling, stunning, slaughter and pithing of animals should be trained and certified and they shall undertake periodical training and education to acquire knowledge of the current developments.' (17)

Although the MHS report says that the provision of formal welfare training needs to be improved, they simply say, 'It is a recommendation that plant operators commit to having at least one member of staff undergo formal welfare training and that this training be cascaded down to all staff involved in the handling of live animals.' (10)

Viva! believes that both the current situation and the MHS recommendation are wholly inadequate. Slaughtermen should not be allowed to 'have a go' on live animals without having undergone formal training. Whilst animals are killed for their meat, slaughtermen should, at the very least, have a good knowledge of animal husbandry and a thorough understanding of the procedures which they are to carry out. They should be closely supervised by an official veterinary surgeon until they have obtained their Certificate of Competence. Additionally, all slaughtermen should be regularly re-assessed to ensure that their standard of competence is not diminishing due to slaughtermen becoming 'inured' to the killing process.

Slaughtermen: Payment

In their 1984 report on slaughter, the Farm Animal Welfare Council commented, 'We have been concerned to find that the practice of payment of slaughter staff on a piece-work basis is fairly common. We consider that such a practice is not in the interests of the welfare of the individual animal but appreciate that it would be difficult to legislate against. Nevertheless we suggest that consideration be given to setting guidelines in the proposed Code of Practice on maximum throughput rates at the point of stunning and slaughter.' (15)

In February 2000, Mr. R. Cawthorne, chairman of Invicta Lamb Ltd, described current payment systems to Viva! in a letter: 'Some line operatives are paid an hourly rate - with possibly a production bonus based on whether or not they carry out a full day's processing, or part of a day. Other operatives work on a 'pool' system where the Plant owners or Management pay a fixed rate per head into the 'pool', say £3 for a beef animal and £0.62 per sheep (or any other agreed sum). This pool would subsequently be divided amongst the operatives according to their skill grades and whether or not they have achieved a full attendance throughout the working week. In other Plants - often small ones - the operatives could be 'self employed' and consequently paid an hourly or daily gross rate.' (12)

Cawthorne describes as a 'fallacy' the notion that the faster slaughterline operatives work and the more animals they kill, the more money they earn. Viva! disagrees. Slaughterhouses would not choose to pay workers in this way if they did not believe it increased productivity. Distributing money according to the number of animals killed in a day means that it is not advantageous for a worker to point out any problem which could lead to the line being stopped. There is also a risk of enforcement officers being intimidated or harassed by workers if they need to stop the line.

In January 2000, Viva! wrote to MAFF and the Meat Hygiene Service enquiring what percentage of abattoirs currently use piece rate payment and whether there are any regulations to cover this payment system. We asked MAFF for their opinion on paying workers in this way.

MAFF replied, 'The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 do not legislate on the payment of slaughterers, and contractual arrangements of this type are a matter between the employer and employee. Accordingly we do not collect any information on this subject. However it is the responsibility of everyone engaged in slaughtering to ensure that they observe the requirements of the welfare legislation, and this applies irrespective of the method of payment to the workforce.' (18).

The Meat Hygiene Service replied, 'I am unable to answer your question. The MHS is not involved with the methods of renumerate for slaughterhouse staff.' (19)

Viva! does not believe that slaughterhouses should pay their staff according to the number of animals that are killed in a day. The Farm Animal Welfare Council have admitted that such systems are not in the animals' interests. It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to legislate against practices which can compromise animal welfare.