Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why the meat industry's "resonably practicable" standards are not good enough

I've been dismayed by the national outpouring of grief in the past week or so over "our" Aussie cattle being treated cruelly by a bunch of (if you believe the hype) sub-human Indonesians. For anyone who missed it, the media storm began when the Australian ABC's Four Corners program showed "an explosive expose of the cruelty inflicted on Australian cattle exported to the slaughterhouses of Indonesia", where they have their throats cut in a manner that panders to Islamic religious beliefs (i.e. halal slaughter).

I won't add any fuel to the current fire by inserting my atheist opinion of all religious irrationality (that is to say, all religions) here.

One of the (numerous) things that bothers me about the Australian public's hysterical response to this story is that the ill-treatment of livestock is very old news - at least it is for people who genuinely care about, and give any thought to, farm animals.

For example, I've been talking to my friends about the mind-bending cruelty of Australia's live sheep export industry since I was in year 10 at school, in 1990 (the actual live sheep export from Australia to the Middle East has been going on since the 1960s, but I only became aware of it when I started taking an active interest in the source of my food as a 14 or 15 year old).

1990 was the year that I became vegetarian. My friends mostly laughed at me then, and teased me about being a hypocrite because I wore leather shoes to school. They also used to think it was hilarious to try to trick me into eating meat. In other words, they were totally unsympathetic to the plight of our nation's sheep and cattle twenty years ago.

But now, those same friends are weeping and wailing all over Facebook about how awful the newly-infamous Muslim abattoirs in Indonesia are.

Why now?

And, why point the finger of moral superiority at the Indonesians? Why not speak out against the Aussies who trained those Indonesians? Or the Aussies who supplied the slaughter boxes? Or how about the Aussie farmers who sent their cattle to Indonesia without (they claim) bothering to find out how those cattle were being treated?

The answers to those questions seem pretty obvious to me: it's very easy, and indeed comforting, to criticise an abomination that has absolutely nothing to do with you. It's satisfying to criticise foreign abattoirs, because it means you can feel good about yourself without having to change your own behaviour one iota (except maybe taking 30 seconds out of your busy-busy schedule to add your name to an online petition).

But the reality is that livestock are quite often treated with comparable disrespect and cruelty right here in Australia. The biggest difference is that we Aussies tend to use a less hands-on approach than the Indonesians. For example, the Indonesians hit and kick cattle, whereas we Aussies just leave cattle to bake in often treeless paddocks; then we truck them over long - sometimes vast - distances in "cattle trucks" (a term which is synonymous in our language with extreme discomfort); and when it comes to getting the beasties to move when they baulk at the abattoir, we use electric prods: a far more civilized approach! (I'm using the term "civilised" here in much the same way that Derrick Jensen uses it, i.e. not as a term of endearment). 

I've addressed this issue before on my blog, at which time I provided a few examples of the unpleasant things that many of our farmers routinely do to their land and their livestock.

The response to the type of criticism I'm levelling here is almost always along the same lines (the following quote comes from Becca): "If an animal was stressed in life then it has an adverse effect on the meat quality, so it is in the best interest of the processing plant to assure the animals go as calmly as possible."

The old argument that "people always do the right thing because it's really in their own best interest!" is about as fresh and as watertight as a rotting carcass. 

It is true that acute pre-slaughter stress in animals does cause tougher meat.

But, a quick Google search reveals that tough meat is not exactly unheard of out in consumer land. In fact, plenty of people routinely buy tough, cheap cuts of meat from supermarkets all over Australia, without ever giving a thought to the mental state of the animal (which, of course, is completely and conveniently unrecognisable once it ends up in a neat plastic package on the supermarket shelf).

Furthermore, Australian scientists D.M. Ferguson & R.D. Warner readily acknowledge that "Stress is the inevitable consequence of the process of transferring animals from farm to slaughter". This observation was published in Meat Science - a peer-reviewed journal of the American Meat Science Association, which is hardly a hot-bed of animal rights propaganda.

Ferguson and Warner also state that "ongoing improvement in stock handling, handling facilities and stock management must be encouraged" - even though such improvements are "dif´Čücult to achieve because of economic and behavioural (human) issues".

Money talks, and many (probably most) Australians are content to support inhumane farming, transport, and slaughtering practices with their hard-earned cash. 

If humans are treated badly at abattoirs ... imagine what the animals are likely to experience.

Here's a slightly different way of thinking about the Australian meat industry:    

Work-related injuries and illnesses in the Australian meat industry occur at a rate of four times the average of all workplaces

If the Australian meat industry's employees experience such a poor outcome - what does this imply about how the industry treats the animals that go there to be killed?

One of our local abattoirs is renowned for (inadvertently) breaking the legs of sheep and goats prior to slaughter (I've been told that the problem is caused by poorly maintained wooden ramps). When one of my friends spoke to an employee of the abattoir about this problem, his response was dismissive. As he pointed out to her: the animals would be dead in 48 hours anyway, so what's the problem? In any case, he said, a certain percentage of broken legs was inevitable.

Another abattoir (where a 17 year old slicer died in a bizarre incident involving a sharp knife) was accused of "substandard training, understaffing, lax safety procedures and bullying".

In response, the abattoir claimed that the training and supervision it provided was ”reasonably practicable”.

"Resonably practicable" behaviour has many chilling implications when it comes to killing animals for profit (and let's face it, modern abattoirs exist to kill animals for profit).

It seems apparent that most (if not all) of the horrific accidents that happen at abattoirs are entirely preventable. But these accidents continue to happen anyway.

So, I can't help but wonder: if abattoir workers frequently injure themselves horrifically by accident - then what on earth do they do to the animals (either by accident, or through carelessness, or as a result of fatigue, or poor training, or stupidity, or malice, or because the facility is poorly designed or maintained or whatever).

From what I've read, modern abattoirs typically kill and process about 250 head of cattle per hour, or about 1 every 15 seconds. I've never met anyone (and I'm not sure I'd want to) whose ambition in life was to slaughter hundreds of animals every day, but I imagine that doing such a job would either attract, or be left to, people for whom the welfare of farm animals is not a pressing concern.

It's no coincidence that the footage of some of the most grievous cruelty to animals - which just occasionally leads to public outrage, and some kind of action - is usually filmed covertly by animal welfare groups such as Animals Australia. (Animals Australia reportedly provided the "explosive" footage of the Indonesian abattoirs which was screened by Four Corners).

Inevitably, the meat industry cries foul and claims that the animal welfare group was somehow unfair in their (mis)representation of the issue.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the meat industry never seems to cop any accusation of animal cruelty on the chin. Rather, they typically blame some "rogue" element within the industry, or, as in this latest Indonesian incident, they use the pathetic and implausible excuse that they were ignorant of the true situation. (Ignorance is not accepted as an excuse in a court of law, and, in my opinion, it's an equally lame excuse for sending the animals you claim to care about to a fate that could fairly be described as torture).

So, here's what I think could be a partial solution to a number of problems within the meat industry: the provision of 24 hour webcams in abattoirs.

The provision of live footage means consumers could see precisely what they're buying; animal welfare groups could monitor the operations to their hearts' content; unions and Workcover could keep an eye on labour conditions; and the meat industry could prove itself to be as clean as the driven snow (or, alternatively, it could be motivated to lift its game quick smart).

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