More than five million animal welfare, contamination and processing problems have led to meat being deemed unsafe for humans in Scotland since 2016.
Data obtained under freedom of information law by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and passed to The Ferret showed defects discovered in cows, sheep, goats and poultry by inspectors from the Scottish Government’s food safety watchdog, Food Standards Scotland (FSS).
From January 2016 to July 2019 a total of 5,027,418 identified conditions led to meat being either partially or wholly rejected by FSS staff monitoring processing at Scottish slaughterhouses.
Animal welfare campaigners said that problems such as lameness, pneumonia, fractures, emaciation, foot-rot and gangrene highlighted the “immense amount of suffering” experienced by farm animals. They also claimed that transporting unfit animals is illegal under European Union (EU) legislation.
FSS stressed it had “zero tolerance for any animal cruelty” and that “thorough inspections” prevented meat which may affect public health from entering the food chain. The National Farmers’ Union in Scotland said the figures showed that “the vast majority of animals passing through abattoirs are seen to be fit and healthy at arrival.”
Animal conditions identified by Food Standards Scotland
|Species||Total: January 2016 - July 2019|
Intensively farmed chickens ‘suffer immensely’
Some 2,671,493 issues led to the rejection of poultry – more than half of all those recorded. The most common reason for rejection, with 694,445 instances, was “ascites/oedema”, a form of heart disease caused by abnormally fast growth.
Ascites “occurs as a result of the increased metabolic demands of fast growth, which causes an increased need for oxygen in the bloodstream”, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“This, in turn, creates stress on the heart and lungs, resulting in enlargement of the heart. As a consequence of this, fluid leaks from the liver and gathers in the abdomen of the bird.”
The campaign group, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), said it was “shocking that the industry has bred chickens, many of which can’t even get to the age of 5-6 weeks without succumbing to heart disease.”
Broiler chickens, which are bred solely for meat, “reach their slaughter weight of 2.2 kilograms in just 35-40 days which is more than twice as quickly as 60 years ago,” said CIWF’s chief policy officer, Peter Stevenson.
“The high number of broilers arriving at Scottish slaughterhouses with ascites highlights the suffering imposed on chickens by today’s broiler industry. Many more are likely to have died on-farm.”
Other common poultry diseases were cellulitis, tumours and hepatitis, while some 90,101 chickens were found dead on arrival, or died in holding pens on the way to abattoirs. Another 55,805 were culled and not processed for meat due to being deemed “rejects” or “runts” by FSS.
Intensively farmed birds “suffer immensely, which is evidenced by the figures provided by the FSS,” said Nicola Glen of Eyes on Animals, an international animal welfare group.
Her group had witnessed hens “arriving at slaughterhouses in a collapsed state, often lying on their backs due to the stressful demands of unnaturally rapid growth on their tiny bodies,” she said.
Glen claimed a common catching method involved up to five birds being held upside down by their legs before being loaded into transport crates. This can cause their wings and legs to break, she said.
Eyes on Animals runs a training course which teaches egg companies to handle only two hens at a time, ensuring they are held upright under their breasts to prevent injury. “We would like to see this method of catching rolled out to broiler chickens too,” said Glen.
In abattoirs, she called for mandatory breast plates to be fitted under the birds, which are commonly hung upside down on the factory conveyor line. This would “avoid additional stress” on the birds’ limbs and ensure they were fully submerged in the electrified water bath, which stuns the birds before slaughter, Glen argued.
“These birds are individuals who suffer and feel pain just as we do,” she added.
‘Disturbing’ number of suffering animals transported illegally
Fasciolosis, a common disease in cattle caused by liver fluke – a type of parasite – was the most frequent reason for rejected beef, with 261,315 cases discovered post-mortem. Other common conditions included contamination, kidney lesions (abnormal tumour growths) and abscesses.
The discovery of fluke parasites was also the most common condition for sheep meat to be rejected, with 373,571 cases found in post-mortems. Lung lesions, parasitic bladder and lung worms, pneumonia, fluke, and contamination were also frequently identified.
Far fewer goats were processed compared to other animals, with only 215 conditions spotted. These mainly consisted of lung lesions, fluke, pneumonia, lameness and foot and joint lesions.
Pneumonia was a common condition, with 246,732 cases spotted in sheep, 44,870 in cattle and 29 in goats. Cases of foot lesions, foot-rot and lameness – a sign of pain or injury – were also frequent. Some 48,453 conditions were found in sheep, 36,169 in cattle, and 44 in goats. In addition, some 536 sheep and 46 cattle died during transit.
“It is very disturbing to see the numbers of cattle and sheep suffering with respiratory problems and lameness being sent to slaughter,” said Glen from Eyes on Animals. “Both health conditions start at the farm and farmers who allow their animals to suffer and then be sent to slaughter should be held accountable.”
She added: “Under EU regulations, no animal who is unfit should be transported. The independent transporters also have a role to play in this as they should not be loading sick and suffering animals. Sheep farming is well known for the amount of subsidies they receive, those who persistently offend should have their subsidies revoked.”
CIWF’s Stevenson echoed the concerns. “I am shocked at the large number of cattle and sheep with lameness and respiratory problems that are being sent to slaughter,” he said.
“This shows that a proportion of Scotland’s cattle and sheep farmers are not looking after their animals well and are allowing them to suffer, possibly over long periods, without effective treatment.
“These farmers are putting the reputation of Scottish farming at risk. The Scottish Government must take urgent steps to ensure that farmers act swiftly to tackle lameness and disease problems in their animals.”
Contaminated meat and processing faults
A significant amount of meat was discarded due to processing faults. There were 244,881 cases of poultry meat being damaged by machines and 182,629 cases of over-scalding, which causes meat to be partially cooked.
Other factory conditions, including “poor plucking”, which leaves some feathers intact, were identified 115,272 times. Meat from cattle and sheep was also rejected due to “processing faults” on 11,231 and 5,222 occasions, respectively.
Contamination, either by faeces, hair, bile, or other matter, was a common reason for meat to be rejected. Faecal contamination can lead to food poisoning through bacterial infections such as E.coli and salmonella.
There were 280,653 cases of contamination in poultry, 158,327 in cattle, 82,385 in sheep and six in goats. FSS clarified that depending upon the reason for rejection and the risk to public or animal health, rejected meat may be used as pet food, for feeding wild and zoo animals or registered packs of hounds. However, meat deemed to be “high risk” must be incinerated.
The Scottish animal welfare charity, OneKind, said it was “saddened to see that so many lives were lost without the meat even being eaten. Much of this is avoidable.”
Chickens being rejected for being “runts”, meat due rejected due to contamination, machine damage and other factory causes “should be scrutinised to avoid such waste,” said OneKind’s policy officer, Kirsty Jenkins.
“Globally, awareness of the un-sustainability of our food systems is growing, and the suffering of farmed animals is interlinked with wider issues. That is why we are working with the Scottish Food Coalition towards Scotland becoming a good food nation. Part of this is ensuring that our food does not come at the expense of animals’ wellbeing.”
According to Food Standards Scotland, between 1 April 2019 and 29 March 2020, 450,111 cattle, 1,277,657 sheep, 611 goats and 40,052,927 poultry were slaughtered in Scotland.
The food watchdog stressed that professional vets and meat hygiene inspectors were in place at all of Scotland’s approved slaughterhouses to ensure high food and animal welfare standards are met.
FSS is also represented on the Scottish livestock welfare working group, in which it said “animal welfare and enforcement information is shared and immediate action is taken, if required.”
FSS deputy chief executive, Ian McWatt, said: “All animals undergo thorough inspections before and after slaughter for conditions which may affect public health if they entered the food chain.
“It may not be possible to identify such conditions which affect internal organs before death, and many of these rejections relate only to the affected part of the carcass or offal. This means that the remainder of the carcass was inspected and considered safe for human consumption.”
The National Farmers Union in Scotland stressed that “public reassurance in the safety of all meat is paramount”. The rejected meat figures “highlight what an excellent job meat hygiene and official veterinarians do in our abattoirs,” it said.
While the figures “pick up a range of problems”, not all were related “to the current condition of the animal,” said the union’s animal health and welfare policy manager, Penny Middleton. “A significant number relate to contamination in plants and some identify damage reflecting historic conditions that the animal had received treatment for.”
All farms producing livestock “have a bespoke health and welfare plan in place, working in conjunction with their local vet,” she added. Any feedback on conditions identified in live animals was “valuable” for farmers “allowing them to keep building on the significant progress we have made on animal health and welfare in Scotland in recent years.”
This article was amended at 22.30 on 7 June 2020 to remove a quote which inaccurately referred to “genetically modified” poultry in Scotland. Header image thanks to BlackRiv from Pixabay. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.