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Cruelty investigation launched into B.C. slaughterhouse after secret video obtained

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WARNING: The details and images associated with this story may be disturbing to some readers and viewers.

An investigation is underway into a B.C. slaughterhouse over alleged animal cruelty, following the release of video obtained by a national animal advocacy group.

On Wednesday, Animal Justice filed a legal complaint against Meadow Valley Meats, claiming staff at the facility were "forcefully hitting and kicking" cows, sheep and goats, before leading the animals to slaughter.

"We received anonymously by mail some shocking footage that appears to be taken inside Meadow Valley Meats," said Camille Labchuk, lawyer and the organization's executive director. "It depicts workers kicking and hitting animals with various instruments."

Labchuk says the video was shot late last summer and was sent to her organization earlier this month.

She also says the footage appears to be taken in different areas of the facility. In one location, sheep are jammed into a small chute and repeatedly hit with a paddle. Workers also seem to wrench them by the neck and throw them to ground.

The secretly shot video also shows cows being slapped with a cane and struck in the face with an electronic prod.

"We saw a number of actions at Meadow Valley Meats that are highly concerning and appear to be illegal. Slaughter laws are very, very clear and we feel that there are clear violations caught on tape," Labchuk said. 

Labchuk and her team sent their legal brief to the B.C. SPCA, B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The group is not only alleging there's evidence of animal abuse, but also improper slaughter techniques that could contravene Canadian regulations governing slaughterhouses.

"At a slaughterhouse an animal must be unconscious and insensible to pain before it can be cut open," said Labchuk from her Toronto office. "But what the footage shows is multiple examples of cows, of goats, and of sheep who are improperly stunned and then appear to show signs of consciousness as or after they are being cut open."

Slaughterhouses can either be federally or provincially licensed in Canada, with Meadow Valley Meats falling under B.C.'s licensing regime.

There are laws protecting agriculture animals, with provincial legislation typically being responsible for protecting those on farms and federal legislation guiding their treatment when they are in transport and at slaughter.  

A requirement for slaughterhouse licence holders is to ensure the handling of food animals does not cause "avoidable injury or death," and they must not subject them to "any condition that may cause suffering."

Another rule under federal regulations states that animals must not be hit with a "whip, prod or any other object" except if rendering them unconscious before death.

"We see animals being handled roughly in a variety of respects, including electric prods used on them, which the regulations are just crystal clear that you're not allowed to do that at the time of slaughter," Labchuk said.

On its website, Meadow Valley Meats says it is "the largest B.C. processor of beef, veal, lambs and goats."  

But the business has run into trouble before. In 2015, when it was called Pitt Meadow Meats, it pleaded guilty to selling E.coli-tainted meat. According to court documents, the company admitted to selling more than 1,000 kilograms of meat before reviewing routine testing results. 

All products were halal and distributed to various location in Metro Vancouver. No one got sick, but the agreed statement of facts said the plant manager knowingly decided not to recall the tainted beef.

The company also has links to two men at the centre of one of Canada's biggest farm animal abuse cases. Jeff Kooyman, and his brother, Ken, are both listed as directors of Meadow Valley Meats.

The men were fined hundreds of thousands of dollars after an undercover sting operation by Mercy for Animals revealed animal cruelty at their dairy farm.

In 2014, a member of the non-profit went undercover at Chilliwack Cattle Sales Ltd., and discovered what has been described as "horrific animal abuse." 

Observations and video recorded at the dairy farm between April 30 and May 30 list numerous incidents of alleged animal abuse, including the use of chains, canes, rakes and other objects to hit and beat cows. 

The dairy farmers eventually pleaded guilty to animal abuse and several of their staff were sentenced to jail for causing distress to animals in what continues to be considered a landmark ruling.

When CTV News visited the Meadow Valley slaughterhouse, a man who identified himself as the plant manager said he was "not aware" of any allegations of abuse or wrongdoing. Instead of explaining further, he said someone from the company would reach out with a comment.

In a written statement, the company said it had been informed that "covertly obtained video" had been provided to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), B.C. Meat Inspection and the B.C. SPCA.

"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and BC Meat Inspection are reviewing the footage. We will wait to hear from them to determine if any actions are required at our facility, and are fully co-operating in this investigation," the company said.

As for the footage, leading animal welfare experts are weighing in. Donald Broom from the U.K.'s Cambridge University, has written hundreds of scientific papers and several books, on how to evaluate animal behaviour and ethics in relation to animal usage.

"Some of those practices are not right, and they were cutting corners and they shouldn't be doing that," said Broom from his home in Cambridge.

After reviewing the footage, Broom drafted a list highlighting his concerns, with "handling methods" and "design of the facility" being two major issues he feels are in need of further review.

"They were picked up by their fleece, by their skin, and lifted into the air and that is something that shouldn't be done at all, as it will be very painful," he said. "We have a combination of actions that would not only cause pain but would be frightening."

When it comes to how the animals are slaughtered, Broom does point out that not all of the staff's techniques were improper. However, he says the way the facility is laid out makes it challenging for more humane slaughter.

"The welfare of the animal continues until it dies or at least until it becomes unconscious just before dying and we should maximize welfare at every state of life."

Moira Harris, another internationally recognized expert, also believes an external investigation is warranted.

"The animals were being pushed back and hit in the face with a paddle, which should not happen. They should also not be prodded in the face with an electric prod as that is extremely painful."

Harris, who completed a PhD at the University of Saskatchewan and has spent decades as an animal behaviour researcher, is often called upon to review animal agriculture practices including those in slaughterhouses.

Her analysis of the video flags issues around how the animals were moved, the layout of the facility and the type of equipment used. She also questions the extent of training staff have and whether they are fully aware of slaughterhouse guidelines.

Another concern for Harris is a portion of video that shows what appears to be a sheep that's unable to walk, being dragged from a holding pen into the slaughter chute.

"If the sheep is sick, and you don't necessarily know what is wrong, you do not want it going into the food chain," she said. "From a humane point of view, you should not be transporting that animal anymore or allowing it to go through the slaughter process."  

The B.C. SPCA  is also reviewing the video. In a written statement, the agency confirmed it received Animal Justice's legal complaint and "as with all complaints received" it's "committed to conducting a full investigation."

B.C's Minister of Agriculture and Food Pam Alexis said her staff also received a letter along with "thousands of hours of surveillance video."

Also in a written statement, she said "we will be looking into this situation" as "we know animal welfare is something that the public is concerned about."

She followed that by saying "most B.C. farmers and ranchers are passionate about their animals and treat them with respect and care, and we expect nothing less.”

Correction

This version of the story corrects the spelling of Camille Labchuk's name.

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