Undercover footage recently emerged, shedding light on the distressing treatment of British pigs prior to slaughter, reigniting the debate surrounding the use of carbon dioxide (CO2) as a stunning method. Advocates argue that these images, the first of their kind to emerge from a UK abattoir, reveal the "utterly inhumane" nature of CO2 stunning. Conversely, the pork industry maintains that CO2 stunning is the most welfare-friendly approach available and asserts that efforts are underway to explore alternatives.
The footage, captured clandestinely at Pilgrim's Pride abattoir in Ashton-under-Lyne, North-West England, in February 2021, offers a glimpse into the process. It shows groups of five or six pigs being mechanically herded into a cage and subsequently lowered into a Butina gas chamber, resembling a ferris wheel-like system. As the gas concentration increases, the pigs display signs of distress, with one pig seen kicking after more than three minutes.
Donald Broom, an animal welfare professor at the University of Cambridge, analyzed the footage and highlighted the pigs' fearful and uncomfortable reactions. He observed their attempts to escape, which were futile due to their confinement. The pigs were seen gasping for breath, indicating poor welfare that persisted until they lost consciousness.
According to Paul Roger, a vet and founder member of the Animal Welfare Science, Ethics, and Law Veterinary Association, some pigs seemed to regain consciousness before slaughter, raising concerns about the humane treatment of animals at the facility. Roger expressed alarm at such practices, stating, "If this is the way animals are treated in this plant, they're not being handled humanely. It's an unacceptable way to treat any animal, and that really concerns me."
Animal activist Joey Carbstrong, who documented the footage for the film "Pignorant," argued that the continued use of CO2 is a result of prioritizing corporate profit over animal welfare. Carbstrong emphasized the urgency of ending the exploitation of animals, citing the gruesome reality depicted in the footage.
The abattoir in question, Pilgrim's Pride, is a division of Pilgrim's UK, formerly known as Tulip, which belongs to JBS, a Brazilian-owned meat producer. Pilgrim's UK asserts that humane treatment of pigs is their priority throughout the animals' lives, and their animal welfare policy emphasizes this commitment. However, the policy confirms the use of CO2 stunning for all Pilgrim's pigs.
Responding to the footage, a spokesperson for Pilgrim's Pride stated that the video did not clearly identify their site, making it inappropriate for them to comment. They further noted that the Food Standards Agency, which is legally required to be present at all abattoirs, regularly reviews footage to ensure animals are treated humanely. The spokesperson added that no issues had been raised within the specified timeframe.
In 2003, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, a government advisory body, declared that CO2 stunning and killing were unacceptable and called for its phase-out within five years. However, the use of CO2 stunning has increased instead, accounting for 88% of all pigs in 2022.
A scientific opinion published by the European Food Safety Authority in June 2020 highlighted the severe welfare concerns associated with exposure to high concentrations of CO2. The panel emphasized that such exposure is highly aversive, causing pain, fear, and respiratory distress.
The issue of animal welfare in the context of pig slaughter is a complex and sensitive one. While campaigners and experts decry the use of CO2 stunning, asserting its detrimental effects on the welfare of pigs, the pork industry contends that it is the most welfare-friendly method currently available. The quest for alternatives continues, with some advocating for the adoption of non-aversive gases despite the associated costs and logistical challenges. Achieving a more compassionate and humane slaughter process for pigs requires concerted efforts from various stakeholders, including government bodies, industry players, and animal welfare organizations.