The mayor of the southern French town of Alès has shut down operations at a local slaughterhouse following the release of a video showing the mistreatment of animals inside the facility.
The secretly shot footage, which was released Wednesday by animal rights group L214, shows animals regaining consciousness while they are being slaughtered. The graphic video shows animals having their throats slit, being bled while hanging by one leg or being left to bleed to death on the slaughterhouse floor.
"A person who had access to the slaughterhouse contacted us, knowing that we had already looked into this matter," explained Sébastien Arsac, one of the group's co-founders. "Some fifty hours of footage were shot over the course of ten days."
According to the group, 3,000 horses, 20,000 pigs, 40,000 sheep and 6,000 cattle are slaughtered each year inside the facility, which can hold up to 7,000 tons of meat in its onsite cold storage room.
WARNING: video contains graphic content.
Gilbert Mouthon, a French vet who also acts as an expert witness in court cases involving meat hygiene, shared his analysis of the footage with VICE News. "On the one hand, [there are] undeniable acts of cruelty, which are a criminal issue, and on the other hand, [there are] health and safety breaches that put the consumer at risk," said Mouton.
The vet added that some of the animals appearing in the footage had not been cleaned properly and were covered in — potentially contaminated — dried excrement.
In a seven-page report dated October 8 and published on the L214 website, Mouthon listed the offenses that appear in the video, including, "Cattle show signs of regaining consciousness: one of them is bled immediately after regaining consciousness."
The law regulating the slaughter of animals in France stipulates that, "Bleeding [is] to start as soon as possible after stunning to ensure the animal does not regain consciousness before death."
Speaking to VICE News Thursday, Arsac said that L214 had lodged a formal complaint against the slaughterhouse with the Alès high court for mistreatment, animal cruelty and for failure to comply with the rules regulating the slaughter of animals. The public prosecutor in Alès said Thursday he had launched a probe into the abuse.
In a statement released Wednesday, Alès Mayor Max Roustan said he had been "moved" by the footage and had ordered "the immediate closure [of the slaughterhouse] as a precautionary measure." They mayor also announced "the launch of an internal administrative investigation to review any breaches to the standards regulating the slaughter of animals."
L214 spokesman Arsac confirmed the presence of signs announcing the closure of the slaughterhouse outside the facility Thursday. He also reported a large number of trucks leaving the facility.
Local meat supplier Alès Viande — which relied on the slaughterhouse for 60 percent of its meat supply — announced it had cut all ties with the supplier on Wednesday. Boris Martinez, the quality manager for Alès Viande, told VICE News that meat supplied by the slaughterhouse was sold on to "middle schools, high schools, hospitals, butchers and supermarkets."
The slaughterhouse is owned and operated by the city of Alès, which is why the mayor was able to shut it down so soon after the release of the video. The running of the facility is overseen by the Departmental Directorate of Population Protection (DDPP) — a decentralized state service, which is tasked with ensuring people's welfare. The DDPP is the agency responsible for making sure the slaughterhouse complied with health and safety regulations and for monitoring its adherence to animal welfare standards.
Speaking to VICE News Thursday, local DDPP head of department Olivier Lemarignier said he and a colleague had toured the facility on September 4, as part of its required annual inspection. Lemarignier explained that, during the visit, the DDPP had reviewed the slaughterhouse logs and inspected both the facility and the equipment.
"We spent several hours observing workers at their stations, and did not witness anything resembling these practices. The footage was shot with a hidden camera," he said. "When I see cattle being bled improperly during ritual slaughter, who come out of the trapdoor having regained consciousness, it's unbearable, it's shocking for me and everyone else on the team," Lemarignier added.
The inspector explained that the DDPP had issued every slaughterhouse employee with an animal welfare "certificate of competency" following two days of training in 2013 and 2014.
As a result of the September inspection, the slaughterhouse was given a formal warning, and was ordered to "put an end to sub-standard practices." Lemarignier declined to say which practices were deemed sub-standard, citing issues of confidentiality. According to a statement released by the district authorities in Nîmes, the offenses observed in September were "not comparable to [those observed ] in the recently released footage."
Lemarignier highlighted the need to "reform operations and invest in equipment" at the slaughterhouse and promised "thorough checks" when and if the facility starts operating again.
"There is an issue in France when it comes to veterinary inspectors," explained Arsac. "Their job isn't easy. They only stop the slaughter line as a last resort. This means that, unlike [matters of] hygiene, animal welfare is seen as optional."
A 2013 report by the European Food and Veterinary Inspection office found that health and safety breaches in the sector were often the result of "high staff turnover, lack of training for food sector employees and minimal — if not inexistant — follow-up in the case of identified non-compliance."
Local authorities say that the slaughterhouse provides "120 direct and indirect" employment opportunities to the region. The slaughterhouse, which underwent a 2.5 million euro ($2.85 million) renovation in 2010, did not respond to VICE News' request for comment.
Follow Lucie Aubourg on Twitter: @LucieAbrg
Screenshot via L214/Youtube