Dentro del matadero: investigación en mataderos del Estado español.

Inside the slaughterhouse: an investigation on the industrial slaughter of animals

Aitor Garmendia
Translator: Eva Cañada
Estado español / 2016 - 2018

Modern slaughterhouses have been designed to take the highest number of animal lives, as fast as possible. Industrialised animal slaughter is a huge business, and some of these factories —which are becoming increasingly technological and are using equipments ever more and more modern and specialised—, take thousands of animals to their deaths every day. The slaughterhouse owned by Grupo Jorge, Le Porc Gourmet, kills 13,000 pigs a day; Veravic, owned by the Ibergallus society, 80,000 chickens; Faccsa has recently initiated formalities to build a slaughterhouse in Andalusia with the capacity to kill up to 40,000 pigs. These are some of the highest production rate slaughterhouses within the Spanish State, and they help us get an approximate idea of the industry’s exploitation and extermination pace.

Between November 2016 and October 2018, I gained access into 16 slaughterhouses in the Spanish State. Inside them, I was able to document the slaughter of cows, pigs, lambs, chickens, and rabbits.

The material I’m including in my investigation is aimed to show —as opposed to the meat industry’s obscurantism and propaganda— the institutional and systematic violence suffered by animals in slaughterhouses. It provides relevant information to revive the debate that, promoted by the anti-speciesist movement, questions the legitimacy of animal exploitation and advocates for its abolition.

As long as its use is pro bono and exposure-oriented, I’ll make all the graphic material obtained available upon request, for free.1

Images of the investigation.

Meat Industry: secrecy and power of influence

Social concern about the abuse suffered by animals in farms and slaughterhouses is on the rise, and the images of violence against them are increasingly taking more and more space in the media. Those images are usually obtained by activist researchers who, either by using subterfuges that allow them to enter these places with a camera in their hands, or by placing hidden cameras, expose to the public eye the truth of an industry that’s becoming increasingly armoured to the sight of its consumers.

The debate about speciesism 2 —the discrimination and subsequent oppression suffered by animals— and the social movement born to fight against it, wouldn’t be where they are now without the existence of graphic investigations carried out by organizations and activists. These investigations have helped people all over the world become aware of the atrocities perpetrated behind the slaughterhouses’ walls, and consequently, they have inspired them to get committed with the defence of animals.

The constant abuses captured by these images are not isolated instances of animal cruelty; they are just part of a systematic exploitation regime backed by the support of our institutions. This kind of investigations are undermining the meat business image, and provoking massive monetary losses.3, 4, 5 With the aim of never letting these images come to light, managers in meat companies receive specific guidelines so as to prevent the hiring of undercover activists who could gain access to their premises. 6, 7, 8

In the US, the animal rights movement has an extensive historic trajectory, and investigations carried out by activists have shown the brutal treatment received by animals in farms and slaughterhouses owned by important food brands (Tyson FoodsMcDonald´sJBSPerdue FoodsPilgrim's Pride, etc). The armouring measures taken by the animal exploitation industry in this country have not been limited to hinder the infiltration of animal advocates: the deployment of their power has gone one step further. During the last decade, the powerful lobbies of the livestock industry have been responsible for laws prosecuting the filming and capturing of images inside farming premises. These laws, known as «Ag-gag»,9, 10 have sparked great controversy, and some law courts have declared them to be unconstitutional.11 Journalists, activists, jurists, and civil rights organizations have warned that they threaten freedom of expression, entitlement of information, animal welfare, workers’ rights, and food safety.12, 13

The Spanish meat industry’s power of influence on public opinion and institutions has also become apparent in several recent scandals.

Everything makes sense once we are aware of the amounts of money that boost the Spanish meat industry’s coffers, and when we understand the influence these big business groups have over public authorities. With a business turnover figure of €24 billion, meat business is the fourth industrial sector in Spanish state,19 which places the country as one of the biggest producers worldwide.20

Los conejos llegan en contenedores que son apilados en la zona de desangrado.

Rabbits arrive in containers that are stacked in the bleeding area of the slaughterhouse.

The investigation

For over three years, I managed to gain access to more than 80 slaughterhouses located in Mexico and the Spanish State, and I had to earn the trust of each and every one of their managers. It was not easy at all. Had I arrived with the declared intention of showing the slaughter of animals to the public, I wouldn’t have been allowed to enter any of them.

In many of my visits, I was accompanied by a manager watching me closely, and in some of them I was forbidden to access the areas where animal suffering is most blatant, such as the stun box or the throat slitting area.

In November 2016, months before setting off for Mexico in order to finish what the media have called the biggest graphic research ever made about slaughterhouses,21 I was starting another parallel investigation in Spanish State. Part of it was carried out in collaboration with NOR, a recently founded Basque collective against speciesism which was at the time preparing its public presentation with an investigation also made in slaughterhouses. Additionally, I made all my visits together with Linas Korta, the fellow activist who has filmed part of the images shown in the audio-visual report.

We knocked on many doors, some of them belonging to big abattoirs, but all our attempts were in vain. In the last few years, and especially since the broadcasting of the report about the meat industry in Salvados, the industry’s secrecy has grown exponentially. They are aware of the risk they face, and they don’t want any cameras inside their plants. However, we managed to gain the trust of some of those slaughterhouses’ managers, assuring them that the images were not going to be published, and so we could get inside 16 slaughterhouses located in the Spanish State.

The images we obtained are a sample of the structural violence and systematic exploitation that’s being held against animals in these places. Electric discharges, captive bolt shots, or electrified water baths are standardized procedures22 and, brutal as they may seem, are a part of the regular activity in any slaughterhouse.

Some of these images reflect practices, such as the throat slitting of conscious animals or the burning of a pig while he’s still alive with a blowtorch, that do overtly breach the animal protection regulations.23 Maybe these practices are not repeated in all slaughterhouses, but previously performed researches —some of them quoted on the present work— have proven that failure in complying with the rules is far more frequent than they try to make us believe. All these deaths are representative of the principle of exploitation under which the meat industry operates, where animals are treated as mere production machines, and where the least important thing is their welfare.

Corrales de un matadero de ovejas. Estado español, 2018.

Corrals of a sheep slaughterhouse.

The fraud of animal welfare

In the face of the increasing social concern about the treatment of animals in farms and slaughterhouses, meat companies try to make consumers believe that animals are protected under animal welfare regulations. This is absolutely untrue. The so-called animal welfare and the implementation of its legal framework are only applied as long as it does not meaningfully impact production rates. It’s under these specifications that it was initially conceived.

During the 60s, the British Government commissioned Roger Brambell, Professor of Zoology at the Bangor University, a study to investigate the exploitation conditions of farm animals.24 The aim of this research was to give an answer to the social outrage provoked after the controversial publication of Animal Machines, the book by Ruth Harrison, where the horrors of intensive animal rearing had been described.

The study confirmed the thesis posed in the denunciation, which pointed out the treatment received by animals at farms was harrowing, and it developed a series of essential conditions to guarantee their welfare. Based upon its conclusions, the British government created the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, which years later, in 1979, would become the Farm Animal Welfare Council. The conditions listed in the study were expanded by this committee, and they took the form of The Five Freedoms.25 Ever since then, these principles have set the animal welfare standards that govern legislations all over the world.

Los crotales sirven para identificar la procedencia de los animales y forman parte del sistema de trazabilidad.

The eartags are used to identify the origin of the animals and are part of the traceability system required by the Ministry of Agriculture. In this slaughterhouse they are classified for that purpose once the animals have been killed.

Nonetheless, as it can be drawn from its own analysis, animal welfare standards do neither prevent animals’ deaths nor help avoid their physical and emotional suffering —inherent to the meat production system— for they are dominated by the industry’s needs.

[The Five Freedoms] form a logical and comprehensive framework for analysis of welfare within any system together with the steps and compromises necessary to safeguard and improve welfare within the proper constraints of an effective livestock industry. (The Five freedoms, Farm Animal Welfare Council.)

Animal welfare measures reduce the suffering in the industrial exploitation and slaughter of animals, that much is true, but thinking they protect them in any way is a mistake. Not only do they not protect animals, but their implementation is also unfeasible in many cases, and in others they have no effectiveness at all. Thus, their only reason to exist is to sweeten the industry’s image.

The existence of a law framework does not guarantee its effective enforcement. Many of the practices observed during this work, some of the recent scandals linked to national slaughterhouses —such as the one linked to the Incarlopsa company 26 or the one linked to a slaughterhouse located in Riaza 27— and the numerous investigations carried out in abattoirs all over the world underline this point.

The procedures followed during the slaughter of the more than 60 billion animals sent to abattoirs in the world every year —800 million in the Spanish State 29— are also impossible to verify. Modern slaughterhouses are factories where trucks arrive relentlessly, loaded with hundreds or thousands of animals. Some plants process up to 10,000 chickens an hour or 10,000 pigs a day. There’s no way to control their procedures.

The animal welfare discourse leads the debate to a dead end that only benefits the industry and not the animals, presenting two options as the only possible alternatives: rightful, humane exploitation vs. its opposite..

And it makes us forget there is another answer, the only one that’s acceptable for animals: the complete abolition of their exploitation.

The work I am presenting is the result of a documentary task carried out in 16 slaughterhouses located within the Spanish territory.

Una cordero es arrastrado por las patas desde el camión donde ha llegado hasta los corrales del matadero.

A lamb is dragged from the truck by it’s legs having reached the pens of the slaughterhouse.

Transport and unloading of animals

According to the last survey on livestock slaughter carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery and Food (MAPAMA,) in 2017, more than 850 million animals were killed in Spanish slaughterhouses. 30 Cows, bulls, calves, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens and animals of other species were carried in trucks up to these death factories.

Transportation is one of the hardest and most traumatic moments for the animals exploited in industrial farms. The European regulation allows for trips of up to 24 hours in a row, with no time to rest, for pigs and horses, 14 hours for goats, sheep and cows, and 12 hours for chickens and rabbits.31 During their transportation, they usually remain crammed upon their own urine and feces, many of them with no space to lay down. Due to the rattling, the bumps, and the exposure to extreme temperatures, some of the animals are hurt, exhausted or in a severe health condition when they arrive. Others simply cannot stand it, and die on the way.

Camión de cerdos a punto de partir al matadero.

Pigs truck about to depart for the slaughterhouse.

A study made in Italy during four years in more than 50 poultry abattoirs revealed that the amount of animals arriving dead to the premises reached rates of up to 1.62%.32 It might seem a small percentage, but if we apply it to the volume of birds that are transported every year to Spanish abattoirs —over 750 million during 2017—33 lhe figure we obtain involves millions of them.

During the loading, many birds suffer bone fractures. Poultry is harshly introduced into cages, loaded into the truck, and transported without any care. Several researches carried out in Germany unveiled that up to 15% of these animals were injured as a consequence of this practice.34

We should also bear in mind that there’s an important amount of animals who never reach the transportation or slaughter phase. The number of animals who perished in farms due to health problems associated with the hard exploitation regime —illnesses provoked by genetic selection, metabolic disorders, respiratory problems, etc.— or due to what the industry calls discard —the killing of animals at the farm for not reaching the optimum levels of production— is estimated to be millions.35 36

On the other hand, a sudden temperature change in the plants were they are overcrowded or a power failure may lead to the death of thousands of animals. Others may perish in road accidents during their transportation. Injured animals are not assisted. They’re killed at the very place where the accident took place or loaded again in another truck with the same destination, at best.

During the investigation, I witnessed the arrival and unloading of animals in slaughterhouses, most of them with medium-sized premises and similar architecture. Animals are received through a gateway that’s directly connected with the pens, which are usually dismal and dirty, and are guided to the stables through noises that terrify them or using electric pushers. Sometimes kicks or blows are given to those who offer resistance, and the smallest animals are tossed forward or thrown directly from the truck to the ramp leading to the stables. On many an occasion, electric shocks are given while animals are being slaughtered in some other area, and the veterinary officer cannot supervise both activities at the same time. This means that no verification is made as to whether the animal protection regulation is being properly applied. Some animals may stand for hours in the pens, while others are guided to the slaughter area right away.

In one of the slaughterhouses, a farmer unloaded two lambs from his car’s boot. They were very frightened when they arrived, and their legs were tied. Breaching the current regulation and in the presence of a veterinarian, they were carried to the stables being held upside down.

Animals shall not be tied by the horns, the antlers, the nose rings nor by legs tied together. Calves shall not be muzzled. Domestic Equidae older than eight months shall wear halters during transport except for unbroken horses. (Annex I, Chapter III, Handling, 1.11 of the Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2005 of 22 December 2004 on the protection of animals during transport and related operations.) 37

In other lamb abattoir, the animals remained in the trucks for several hours, with no water or care whatsoever.

Un cordero es lanzado al suelo durante las descarga en un matadero.

A lamb is thrown to the floor during unloading. This practice is prohibited by Council Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009 of 24 September 2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing.

Un cordero es lanzado al suelo durante las descarga en un matadero.

In this lamb abattoir, the animals remained in the trucks for several hours, with no water or care whatsoever.

Un granjero traslada dos corderos a los corrales de un matadero mediante una soga atada a sus cuatro patas.

A farmer transfers two lambs to the pens by a rope tied to their four legs. This practice is prohibited by Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2005 of 22 December 2004 on the protection of animals during transport and related operations.

Dos corderos llegan al matadero en el maletero de un monovolumen con una soga atada a sus cuatro patas.

Two lambs arrive in the boot of a minivan with a rope tied to their four legs. This practice is prohibited by Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2005 of 22 December 2004 on the protection of animals during transport and related operations.

Birds and rabbits are disposed inside the same containers they have arrived in. The cages are stacked up in a pile, and nobody prevents —as the European regulation requires— their urine and feces from falling upon the animals.

1.4.When containers are put one on top of the other, the necessary precautions shall be taken: (a) to limit urine and faeces falling on the animals placed underneath; (Annex III, Operational rules for slaughterhouses, 1.4 of the Council Regulation (EC) No1099/2009 of 24 September 2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing.) 38

In other abattoir I visited, the last rabbits to be slaughtered were dirty, covered in urine, and they spent several hours locked in plastic cages with barely any space to move. The veterinarian asked me specifically not to take any photographs of these animals.

Regulations require priority attention to those females who have given birth during the transport. In other words, they recognize there are females that are sent to be slaughtered when they are about to give birth.

1.5. For the purpose of slaughter, unweaned animals, lactating dairy animals, females having given birth during the journey or animals delivered in containers shall be given priority over other types of animal. (Annex III, Operational rulkes for slaughterhouses, 1.5 of the Council Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009 of 24 September 2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing.) 39

Los conejos llegan en contenedores que son apilados en el área de matanza.

Rabbits arrive in containers that are stacked in the slaughter area.

Contenedores de conejos apilados unos sobre otros en la zona de desangrado de un matadero.

Rabbit containers stacked on top of each other in the bleeding area.

Corrales de un matadero de ovejas y corderos.

Corrals of a slaughterhouse for sheep and lambs. The ram and the adult sheep are used as guides to lead the rest of the lambs to the killing area.

Los cerdos de este matadero aguardan en los corrales a temperaturas que rondan los cero grados centígrados.

The pigs of this slaughterhouse wait in the corrals at temperatures around zero degrees centigrade.

Corrales en un matadero de vacas.

Corrals in a cow slaughterhouse.

Lechones en un contenedor de plástico a la espera de ser matados.

Piglets in a plastic container waiting to be killed.

Las aves llegan en contenedores apilados que son dirigidos hasta el área de desangrado.

The birds arrive in stacked containers that are directed to the bleeding area.

Corrales en un matadero de vacas. La puerta que se encuentra al final del pasillo conecta con el cajón de aturdimiento.

Pens in a cow slaughterhouse. The door at the end of the corridor connects with the stunning box.

Towards death: stunning methods

The stunning methods applied in the pre-throat slitting phase are one of the most controversial and polemic issues in the animal welfare debate. They’re aimed to guarantee immediate loss of consciousness in order to prevent animals from suffering during the bleeding. According to the regulations, any process that provokes instant death is also considered as a stunning method.40

The meat industry assures that, using these methods, animals do not suffer, 41 but they know that in their abattoirs, for different reasons, the truth is quite another.

Procedures included in the European regulations require that these practices must be carried out with a precision I never saw in the places I visited. Hitting the target on a frightened cow’s head, when the cow weighs nearly half a ton and she is resisting death, or placing two electrodes on the sides of a pig’s head while he’s restlessly slipping on a floor full of blood are not easy tasks to do, and even less with the accuracy required by animal welfare standards. The production pace in slaughterhouses —ever more and more hectic— where one single worker has to perform the same task hundreds of times a day, increases the difficulty to comply with the procedures. In addition, sometimes stun guns get stuck, or electric devices are poorly regulated, or animals wake up from the stunning and are completely awake while their throat is slit, etc., and this expands their wait, stress and suffering.

Besides, as we previously stated, in some abattoirs regulations are directly contravened in the presence of a veterinarian. During my investigation, I visited two lamb abattoirs where animals were not previously stunned. In a third one, I was not allowed to access this particular area, and in another one the worker confessed that the only reason why he was stunning animals was because he was in the presence of a camera.

There’s another reason, subject to controversy as well, why many animals do not undergo the stunning process. Regulations allow an exception in the case of religious rites, such as the halal or kosher slaughter, where animals get their throats slit without previous stunning. In 2010, and only in Mercabarna, more than 100,000 lambs and over 40,000 calves were slaughtered using this method.42

Cerdo en el inicio del restrainer.

A pig after entering the restrainer, a machine that immobilizes and moves the pigs one by one from the pens to the point of stunning, where the electric shock is applied.

Due to these exceptions and to the existence of malpractices in the enforcement of animal welfare regulations, everything suggests that many animals are put to death in a state of fully conscious.

What comes next is a list of the stunning methods I observed during my investigation. All of them are considered, according to the regulation, as simple stunning methods —they do not provoke instant death of the animals— and they must necessarily be followed by a killing procedure.

Captive bolt gun

Due to its low cost and easy functioning, the captive bolt device is probably the most widespread stunning method in the world, used for cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and horses.43

The gun shots a bolt, driven by a gunpowder cartridge or by compressed air, which retracts itself to its initial position after entering the animal’s skull, provoking a brain trauma. In order to achieve an effective stunning, regulations require beef cattle to be duly placed inside the stun box, and the weapon to be firmly held against the place where it will be shot.

Quite frequently cows resist entering the box, so they receive electric discharges. Some of them moo and look significantly affected. They shake their heads and move nervously back and forth. Hitting the target of a shot with the accuracy demanded by animal welfare standards is quite a difficult task, and sometimes the procedure must be repeated.

Aturdimiento con perno cautivo.

Stunning with a captive bolt.

The regulation itself recognizes that the waiting time in the stun box may cause deep distress to the animal, that’s why it demands the waiting time to be as brief as possible. In three out of the five cow abattoirs I visited, however, this specification was not complied with. Some animals remained several minutes in the box without the presence of any operator. In one of them, a cow’s tail was harshly twisted —another practice specifically forbidden by the regulations— to make her get into the stun box. At the same time, the stun box must «have a system to limit the movements of the animal’s head, both sideways and vertically». Most slaughterhouses are not obliged to abide by these measures until 2019. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that they were not fulfilled in any of them; furthermore, the animals could move their heads vertically, hampering the task even further. A cow even managed to turn around completely and get out of the box.

This method is not only used with beef cattle. I also witnessed its use in a sheep abattoir. Sheep were gathered against a corner and the worker shot them from behind, under the base of their horns, without holding them in any way. Once they fell on the floor, the slaughterer dragged them, holding one of their back legs, up to the conveyor hooks. Some of them showed signs of being still conscious.

This technique, even when it is correctly applied, doesn’t guarantee that the animal will lose consciousness, and some animals show signs of suffering after being shot. A study carried out in Europe on 585 bulls, 306 cows, 58 steers, and 49 calves revealed that the stunning had failed 12.5% of the times, and that the average gap of time between the shot and the throat slitting had been of over 100 seconds.44

Electrical stunning

The equipment is composed of an electric panel and, attached to this panel, a couple of pliers with electrodes at the tips. The pliers, placed on both sides of the head, give an electric shock to the animal. When used correctly, the shock causes an epileptic seizure and the momentary loss of consciousness. This is a reversible procedure, which means that in case the stunning is achieved, the animal may recover consciousness in a brief space of time.

Electrical stunning on pigs

Aplicación de descarga eléctrica mediante electrodos en el redil de aturdimiento.

A pig is pushed through the restrainer after receiving an electric shock.

Un cerdo es empujado mediante el restrainer tras recibir una descarga eléctrica.

A pig is pushed through the restrainer after receiving an electric shock.

Cajón de aturdimiento en un matadero de cerdos.

Stunning crate in a pig slaughterhouse.

To speed up the task, many pigs are lifted to have their throat slit while being stunned. Sometimes the slaughterers, in order to attach the animal’s chained legs to the elevator hooks, press their chest with one leg. I have witnessed this practice —which contravenes the regulations— in different slaughterhouses.

Several studies have proved that a high number of pigs remain conscious after having been applied this stunning method. Bristol University showed, after a research performed in 29 English slaughterhouses, that 36% of the pigs were not properly stunned, 15.6% had to be stunned again, and 20.5% of them were in a state that allowed them to recover consciousness.45 England is one of the places in the world where the animal welfare regulation is most demanding. Another —more recent— study carried out in a Colombian slaughterhouse where the application of electronarcosis was examined in 1,341 pigs showed that it was only effective in 20.6% of the cases.46

The stunning of pigs during nursing period is performed with less powered clamps, between two operators. While one of them restrains the animal, the other one applies the electric shock on the head.

El aturdido de los cerdos en periodo de lactancia se realiza con unas pinzas de menor potencia entre dos operarios.

The stunning of pigs during lactation is done with a pair of less powerful clamps between two workers. While one holds the animal, the other applies the electric shock to the head.

Electrical stunning on sheep and lambs

Sheep and lambs are guided up to a sheepfold, usually connected by a door with the pens. Lambs are visibly scared and they group together against one of the sheepfold corners. I haven’t observed any specific restraining method. They are often restrained between the slaughterer’s legs, who applies the shock with the pliers. In two abattoirs I visited, lambs were stunned while suspended by their rear legs at the bleeding elevator. In one of them, workers even hung two lambs in the same hook. Both these practices are expressly prohibited by the regulation.

A guiding sheep, carrying the herd to the slaughter area

Guiding animals to the slaughter area is not an easy task. The transportation and their time in the pens is a dramatic change of scenario for them. Many of those animals have just been severed from their mothers; some of them even have their umbilical cord still attached. They are scared, and they refuse to walk. The following conversation —registered with a hidden camera— was held between my research fellow and a veterinarian.

—There are rams who refuse to enter the box. That’s because they can smell the blood of the animal that has been slaughtered before them. They’re always scared of the unknown, they have always lived in the farm and you suddenly bring them here… They’re always scared. But I think it is because they can smell the blood.—

En algunos mataderos se utilizan ovejas guía para conducir a los corderos hasta la zona de matanza.

In some slaughterhouses guide sheep are used to lead the lambs to the killing area.

At some slaughterhouses, adult sheep are used in order to facilitate the moving of the lambs to the slaughter area. These guiding or meek sheep —also called Judas sheep in some industry manuals—47, 48 are trained to guide the lambs to the place where they receive the electric shock and are then slaughtered.49, 50 They live their life in the pens, and every day they guide thousands of lambs to their death. I have observed this practice in two abattoirs.

Electrical stunning on rabbits

The rabbit’s head is placed in a device equipped with a pair of tweezers that are operated through a pedal. Once they receive the electric shock, the animals are hung by one of their rear legs in a hook of the conveyor.

A study carried out in a slaughterhouse located in North Italy on 1,020 rabbits showed that the procedure was wrongly executed more than 10% of the times. Besides, several animals recovered consciousness after being stunned.51

After the stunning, some animals —pigs, sheep or rabbits— show signs of being conscious. They shake their bodies vigorously, they move their eyes watching their surroundings, and they twist and turn or kick their legs while hanging from a hook. Sometimes they even remain hanging for several minutes while the slaughterer is doing other tasks. When the electrical stunning is not performed properly —either because the operator hasn’t applied it where he should, or because the electrical power wasn’t high enough— animals might not lose consciousness and enter instead in a state of shock known as Leduc’s condition or Leduc’s nightmare. Animals remain paralyzed and cannot make any sound, but they are totally conscious. 52

Matadero de conejos.

Rabbit slaughterhouse.

Electrical stunning in water tank

Bathing chickens or other similar sized birds in electrified water in order to stun them is the most widespread procedure in the Spanish state and, in general, in the whole European Union (81%).53, 54, 55 Chickens arrive totally crammed inside cages that are placed on top of each other, right at the starting point of the slaughter line. Then they are hung by their legs, upside down, in the hooks of an air conveyor that moves them along the different areas of the slaughterhouse.

Broiler chickens have been genetically engineered in such a way that many of them suffer from severe disorders in their legs and can barely stand on their feet.56 A specialised worker can hang over 1,000 chickens an hour.57 f this process is not performed correctly —something quite common, given the speed reached by some processing lines—animals may suffer even more damages than the ones they are bound to undergo. A study concluded that, after being hung, 3% of the chickens had broken bones;58 another study pointed out that hanging increases the chances of having broken bones in a 44%.59 In the poultry abattoir I visited, some of the birds remained hanging for more than a minute in the pre-stunning phase, exceeding the maximum waiting time stated by the regulation. Once they were hanging, and in a desperate attempt to get away, they flapped their wings and squirmed in anguish.

In 2003, Alternativa para la Liberación Animal, a pioneering association and seedbed of some important animal advocacy organizations in Spain, published in its Boletín Informativo a heartrending statement by a poultry slaughterer:

They come in trucks, inside cages. Between 2,500 and 3,000 chickens come in every truck, all crammed on top of each other, with their feathers, their legs, their wings rearing out of the cages. They come from Huesca and other locations. It’s quite a long trip, and it’s so cold outside that many of them arrive completely frozen, dead, or in very awful conditions. [...] You hold them by the leg or whatever part of their body you grab, because when you take a chicken you do it without even looking at it, you may grab them by the neck or the legs, and then you hang them upside down. Then, they get into a container full of water with two power cables, we make this to numb the chickens. (Entrevista a un matarife. Newsletter issue 02-03 by Alternativa para la Liberación Animal - ALA) 60

With the equipment in motion, the conveyor carries the chickens to a tank full of electrified water. . Their heads are immersed in the water for a few seconds but, as confirmed by several researches,61 some animals manage to raise their head, or they are too small and pass through the water tank without having been stun. Electricity flows through their entire body and may cause bleeding and broken bones.62 If the access to the tank is wet, they may receive an electric shock moments before their head is immersed in the water.

The complexity of multiple bird waterbath stunning is not conducive to maintaining good welfare. Effectiveness of the stun cannot be determined. The method, widely practiced because it is simple and cheap, cannot be controlled. You can’t control the amount of electrical current flowing through a bird. You can’t harmonize electrical resistance in broiler chickens. The waterbath has to be replaced. (Dr. Mohan Raj, USDA Seminar, December 16, 2004.)63

With this stunning system, the voltage is steady and equal for all. If the sizes and weights of the chickens are uneven, some of them might not receive enough electric power to induce the loss of consciousness.64 Virgil Butler, former worker of the meat corporation Tyson Foods and currently animal rights activist, pointed out that this method’s objective is to increase production rather than to prevent the chickens from suffering. These were his words about this particular issue:

The stunner is strictly to facilitate line speed. Before they implemented the stunner down at that plant, the line ran 98 birds per minute, with two killers. After adding the stunner, it jumped the speed up to 120. Then, they added the killing machine, dropped one of the killers, and turned the speed up to 142. Now, of course, it runs 186 birds per minute. All it does is paralyze the muscles. It doesn't render them unconscious or make them insensible to pain. In Tyson's own words to the workers, «It makes the plant more efficient».65

Degüello de aves tras haber recibido el baño de agua electrificada.

Bird decapitated after receiving the electrified water bath.

The slaughter

Throat slitting is the most common slaughter process. It is performed manually with a sharpened knife, «systematically sectioning both carotid arteries or the vessels they stem from».66 The most sophisticated chicken slaughter lines have an automatic blade capable of slitting thousands of chickens’ necks per hour.67

According the Council Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009 of 24 September 2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing, throat slitting must be carried out immediately after the stunning, before the animal recovers consciousness.68 However, since numbing methods are not a hundred per cent effective, since they’re sometimes performed incorrectly, or their use is totally skipped (which goes against regulations), a percentage of animals arrive totally conscious to this phase of the process. During my investigation, I observed this circumstance in several slaughterhouses, and I witnessed very brutal and violent scenes; there was no compassion or care in those places, just speed and brutalization.

Sheep are carried to the slaughter area through a conveyor belt. They arrive hanging by their rear legs, and once they are over the blood-collecting container, the slaughterer slits their throat one by one. He holds their head with one hand and, with the other, depending on the technique, he stabs them or cuts their carotid artery. After that, many of them are pushed at high speed through the conveyor rails, while they bleed to death, bump on each other and stack on top of one another. They kick, they twist and turn, and their blood splatters in all directions. On a particular occasion, I saw a sheep at the conveyor whose size exceeded the one that the line had been designed for. Due to her weight, and having been already stunned, she fell on the floor. She was hung once more from the rails. Her head was touching the bottom of the blood container, totally covered in blood. She was killed in such circumstances.

Zona de desangrado. El matarife apuñala a un cordero tras haber recibido la descarga eléctrica.

Zona de desangrado. El matarife apuñala a un cordero tras haber recibido la descarga eléctrica.

The slaughter of pigs is similar to the process used for sheep. After the throat slitting, the animals are carried to the scalding tanks and to the scorching oven, two machines used to remove their hair. The tanks are full of hot water that covers completely the pig’s body.69 he regulation requests that the animals arrive to this phase being already dead, and that before they are immersed in the water, «absence of life in the animal must have been observed.» In some of the abattoirs I visited, the veterinarian was not present and the processing line was not stopped for this reason.

Investigations carried out by activists and institutional entities, together with the testimonies offered by workers, prove that in those slaughterhouses where the same procedures I observed during this investigation are followed, many pigs are immersed in the scalding tanks while still being alive.

The slaughterhouse owned by Incarlopsa —a company located in Cuenca that supplies Mercadona with meat products— was sentenced for introducing living pigs in the scalding tanks for three whole years in a row.70 At the beginning of 2017, an undercover activist who visited the biggest pig abattoir in Belgium with a hidden camera showed how animals were immersed in the tanks while still being alive.71 During 2016, an official research carried out in the UK denounced over 4,000 serious infringements of the animal welfare regulations, and found as well instances of pigs being introduced in the scalding tanks while still breathing.72

Tanque de escaldado. Varias investigaciones han probado que muchos cerdos llegan vivos a esta fase del proceso.

Scalding tank. Several investigations have proven that many pigs are still alive at this stage of the process.

In her book, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, And Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry, investigator Gail Eisnitz also shows testimonies by workers who have witnessed how some pigs were still alive when they arrived to the scalding tanks.

—These hogs get up to the scalding tank, hit the water and start screaming and kicking. Sometimes they thrash so much they kick water out of the tank. Not a lot of water, but it was obvious what was going on because I could hear them screaming. Sooner or later they drown.

—There's a rotating arm that pushes them under, no chance for them to get out. I am not sure if they burn to death before they drown, but it takes them a couple of minutes to stop thrashing. You think management cares about the pain of being drowned or boiled to death?

—I've seen hogs in the scalding tub trying to swim.

In some abattoirs, a blowtorch is also used to scorch the pigs’ hooves and detach them from their legs. This practice should only be performed when the pig is already dead. I once observed how, in order to save time, a worker burnt a pig while he was still breathing. The flames reached his face. He was being burnt alive.

A pig is burned alive with a blowtorch in a spanish slaughterhouse.

In other pig abattoir I witnessed how the animals were dragged on the floor up to the slaughter area using a hook stuck in their throats. This practice is forbidden, and the slaughterhouse staff expressly asked me not to publish those images.

The slaughter of poultry and rabbits I documented for this report took place at the same abattoir. The chickens are hung by their legs and carried to the electrified water tank in order to get stunned. Then, they reach the bleeding area, where a worker slits their throat with a blade. After the stunning and throat slitting phases, some of the birds seemed to remain totally conscious.

It must be noticed that the working pace at slaughterhouses is becoming ever more frenetic. Automatic throat slitters can kill up to 10,000 animals per hour. Due to the lack of precision of manual cutting, to the rate of error shown by automatic slitters, or to the inadequate waiting times between the throat slitting and the next step of the process, there’s a percentage of birds who are still alive upon their arrival to the scalding tank, and they drown to death there. No relevant investigations in poultry abattoirs haven’t been carried out yet within the Spanish state, but two important and extensive government reports developed in the US and in Great Britain, 73, 74 as well as the investigations carried out with the use of hidden cameras,75 give us a clue about what might be happening in Spanish slaughterhouses that share similar characteristics.

Área de desollado de un matadero de conejos.

Flaying area of ​​a rabbit slaughterhouse.

In the case of rabbits, some of them also show signs of being conscious after the throat slitting. They shake their legs, twist their bodies, and lift their heads. As shown by the study performed in an Italian slaughterhouse, animals may recover consciousness after the stunning phase.77

Beef cattle has been the least documented species during this investigation. I observed the slaughter of over 20 cows. After the stunning, they are expelled to the floor through a hatch located right beneath the box. The vast majority of them are still moving after the throat slitting.

As I explained before, and as opposed to what the meat industry and their institutional representatives try to convey, animal welfare measures do not protect animals at all. The regulation that controls the implementation of the animal welfare standards in the EU slaughterhouses even recognizes that the slaughter of animals can cause «pain, distress, fear or other forms of suffering to the animals even under the best available technical conditions».78 And, indeed, I have been able to confirm this is completely true.

Age of the animals at the slaughterhouse

The meat industry takes good care of the way it presents animal exploitation to the consumers. The industry is becoming more and more aware of the impact words and images have in their consumption habits, and for some time now, it has understood that relating their products to industrial exploitation and slaughter of animals is not a good sales strategy.79

Current campaigns by the industry show us animals living in pastoral landscapes, under the care of very friendly farmers. They never show any images of their slaughterhouses, nor do they explain that most animals are sent to those places very early in their lives. And they never mention that the life expectancy of those animals in an exploitation-free environment would be much higher. Some of them are killed just a few days after their birth, others are traumatically severed from their mothers and still have their umbilical cord attached when they reach the slaughterhouse.

Chickens have a life expectancy of 8 years, and they are taken to the abattoir when they are 42 days old; sheep’s life expectancy stands at approximately 10 years, but they’re usually taken to the slaughterhouse when they are between 3 and 10 months old; rabbits can live up to 9 years, but they are sent to the abattoir when they are 2 months old; calves may live over 20 years, but their lives are taken during their first or second year of life.

Las ovejas tienen una esperanza de vida que alcanza los 10 años, pero pueden ser llevadas a los mataderos entre los 3 y 10 meses de edad.

Sheep have a life expectancy of 10 years, but are often taken to slaughterhouses between 3 and 10 months of age.

Our connivance supports them

The meat industry deliberately hides animal exploitation and slaughter. They lie about the treatment animals receive in their sickening slaughterhouses and farms. Through the implementation of animal welfare seals, and labels that say «cage-free» or «free range», they try to make us believe that animals are protected precisely in the place where their lives are taken from them.

I’ve been visiting animal exploitation plants for many years. I’ve climbed over the walls of industrial farms together with other activists while they were carrying out their investigations. I have travelled inside trucks loaded with cows and I have accessed almost a hundred slaughterhouses. In them, I have witnessed countless abuses and aggressions suffered by animals, and I have verified the systematic exploitation they endure. There’s no place for welfare in any farm or slaughterhouse.

The apparent concern shown by the livestock industry about the treatment animals receive is nothing but propaganda. Just another part of their sales strategy. They have a detailed knowledge of what’s going on inside their premises, and they have no interest whatsoever in taking care of or protecting animals, for that would mean the end of their business.

Nevertheless, their business cannot work properly without the connivance of those who demand their products. Many of us have the feeling —or already know for sure— that there is something ethically unacceptable behind those walls, but we choose to look the other way and accept the industry’s version. We justify atrocious ways of violence against certain animals that we’d never tolerate against others. If the animal whose head we immerse in an electrified water tank or who we shoot inside a stun box belonged to another species —like a dog or a cat, for instance— we’d be accused of animal cruelty, and we’d even be brought to court.

In slaughterhouses, the biggest form of violence and abuse is perpetrated against terrestrial animals. A kind of exploitation articulated under the ideological umbrella of speciesism, the historical oppression suffered by animals.

The images shown in this report are another window to the secretive world of industrial livestock farming, and they’ve been taken for the sole purpose of offering some tools to face the distress suffered by millions of animals.


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