Recently, a video made the rounds on social media in France that could make you want to consider vegetarianism. Secretly recorded by the French animal rights group L214, the video shows sheep being badly mistreated as they move through a processing plant.
The public outcry was fierce, and the legislative response swift. In a sweeping proposal, a group of members of French parliament have called for a number of reforms to how the meat processing industry is monitored. Among them is the installation of surveillance cameras to help prevent animal abuse.
The case for surveillance cameras in slaughterhouses has been argued for some time. In the United Kingdom, various animal-welfare groups call for the mandatory installation of cameras to fight abuse, and have successfully petitioned supermarket chains to require their meat suppliers to install CCTV cameras. But the real question is whether they are effectual; the UK animal rights group Animal Aid found that even in slaughterhouses with cameras installed, workers were filmed burning pigs faces' with cigarettes and beating animals.
This is, of course, not part of the protocol in slaughterhouses. Procedure dictates that an animal should be guided through a plant in a calm state and be completely knocked out by electrical shock before being slaughtered. In the United States, slaughterhouses are staffed during all hours of operation by USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors on the lookout for abuse. The North American Meat Institute, a trade association that represents the vast majority of meat producers in the United States, has a video series hosted by the animal behavior authority Temple Grandin that explains the process.
"Right now, in any plant that slaughters, you have at least one inspector at all times," Janet M. Riley, senior vice president of public affairs at the North American Meat Institute, told MUNCHIES. "Any sizeable plant, like a large plant in Colorado or Texas, has to have as many as 12 inspectors per shift."
But you've probably seen videos like the one that circulated in France, and know that the humane method isn't always followed. Proponents of electronic surveillance want more oversight, and generally call for laws requiring cameras to be installed at key junctures in the slaughterhouse—where animals are stunned or have their throats slit—and that the footage be available for review by independent groups, and could either be acted upon immediately in the case of on-site monitoring or retroactively serve as evidence of abuse. Others suggest that workers would be less likely to abuse animals knowing there is an eye in the sky, too. But, of course, the cameras can't be all-seeing.
"When the possibility of mandatory video surveillance in US plants has come up, we've said it would be a useful supplemental tool, but is not a panacea—because awful abuse could easily occur just beyond the camera's limited lens and the use of such surveillance could provide a false sense of security to the public, media, etc. that slaughter problems are being prevented," Paul Shapiro, the vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States told MUNCHIES. "Video surveillance should be in addition to, but not replace, real time inspections by actual inspectors."
Riley says that many plants install cameras on their own volition to monitor practices, and agrees that they're limited in their ability to ensure humane treatment of animals.
"Cameras can be helpful, but they're no substitute for someone really being there to assess," Riley told MUNCHIES. "Sometimes, when we do try to look at what happened with an incident, it can be tough to tell what's going on."
In the US, past legislative efforts to require surveillance cameras have stalled at the USDA, according to senators who pushed for their installation after similar video footage sparked a beef recall in 2008. The agency argue that cameras aren't a cure-all and that on-the-ground inspection is the best way to ensure humane practices.
"FSIS supports any plant's decision to use video, electronic monitoring, or recording equipment as a means of humane handling oversight, but does not require it of a plant," an FSIS spokesperson told MUNCHIES. "FSIS has not mandated video surveillance in slaughterhouses because FSIS inspectors are present in federal slaughter establishments on a daily basis to conduct hands-on inspection and verify that establishments are meeting regulatory requirements for humane handling with livestock and good commercial practices with poultry."
Should a slaughterhouse wish to use video surveillance, the FSIS maintains guidelines for doing so.
Across the Atlantic, French authorities continue to push for cameras in slaughterhouses so that those outside of the meat and inspection industry may gain some insight into what goes on inside slaughterhouses.
But if cameras are installed, consumers may simply assume that animal abuse is no longer a problem—how many consumers would actually watch footage of animal slaughter? Either way, for most consumers, the origin of their meat is out of sight and out of mind.