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A moral wake-up call from a slaughterhouse in Ashton-under-Lyne
'Four lock ons, three bike locks and two chains will keep hundreds [of] pigs alive'
Dear members: Joshi doesn’t eat meat, but he’s not evangelical about vegetarianism. But when some activists chained themselves to the fence of a pig slaughterhouse in Ashton-under-Lyne to protest their methods, he delved into what they were protesting — and why we should all be thinking more about how our meat is produced.
But before we get there: Manchester is the largest city in Europe minus their own opera company, plus why the planning document for nine of GM’s ten boroughs is “basically panto”.
Your Mill briefing
"If Manchester was in Germany it would have two opera houses," says John Allison, the editor of Opera Magazine, who we spoke to this morning about the spiralling row over English National Opera moving north (the plan is "insane" according to a headline in today's Times). Allison points out that ours is the biggest city in Europe without an opera company, but he's highly critical of the way the Arts Council has yanked grant funding from the ENO without having a proper plan in place about what it should do next. We also got a call this morning from the Daily Telegraph's culture editor Anita Singh, who wanted Joshi's views on the ENO coming to Manchester (if you haven't been following his Twitter battles with outraged London opera critics and didn't read our Monday and Tuesday editions, he's very pro). Singh pointed out that even Arts Council boss Sir Nicholas Serota didn't really know what the ENO should do, which suggests the Manchester plan is less of a plan than a fleeting idea. All of which means that in our campaign to make this thing happen we are, as American political pundits like to say, "rolling the ball up the hill". But roll it we will.
The public examination of Greater Manchester's Places for Everyone strategy — the planning document for nine of GM's ten boroughs — has begun. It is "basically panto" according to Place North West's David Thame. The cast includes a "chorus of angry barons (developers), and peasants (green belt protectors)" trying to sway the planning inspectors to their cause. Places for Everyone is the heir to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, which went down in flames after Stockport pulled out of the plan in 2020. Now, the nine remaining boroughs are trying to push the plan through under a different statutory framework, and need to prove that it will have "substantially the same effect" on the millions of sq ft it covers as the Spatial Framework would have had. If they can't agree on this, it'll be another planning strategy resigned to history.
Kate Green, the Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, is set to step down after her nomination to be Greater Manchester's deputy mayor. She has been chosen to replace Baroness Bev Hughes, who Andy Burnham has said will be a "very hard act to follow" but he believes he has found "found someone with the calibre, character and values to do just that". Green has suggested that Trafford Council leader Andrew Western should stand to replace her in parliament.
By Joshi Herrmann
“We’ve taken over purposefully and without remorse because we have had enough,” the Facebook post announced. “We’ve taken over because the animals have had enough. We’ve taken over because the planet has had enough.” On February 20, 2020, the activists chained themselves to the gates of the slaughterhouse in Ashton-under-Lyne. They demonstrated a flair for theatre: while some wore balaclavas, others sported gas masks. “Four lock ons, three bike locks and two chains will keep hundreds [of] pigs alive,” the post continued.
Yesterday came the news that all eleven of the activists had been acquitted, having been charged with aggravated trespass for blockading the entrance to Tulip’s pig slaughterhouse. The court was told that the protest resulted in £150,000-worth of losses for Pilgrim’s Pride, a meat manufacturer which describes itself as “Britain’s biggest provider of higher welfare pork”. Pilgrim’s Pride is part of an American company, which in turn is owned by a Brazilian meat conglomerate called JBS. If you were to take The Pilgrim’s Pride website’s images for fact — see below for one example — you would assume the company ran some sort of rescue sanctuary for pigs.
The reality looks a little different: the abattoir in Ashton is a vast facility that kills more than 3,000 pigs per day, according to Smash Speciesism, one of the activist groups involved in this blockade. It had around 600 employees working on the site in 2018, and the news story in which I found that detail quotes a man called Kurt Pedersen, whose job title is (or was) “abattoir and de-boning operations director”. Tulip was previously the country’s “biggest producer and processor of pigs”, according to Pig World, but it was acquired by Pilgrim’s Pride a few years ago in a deal worth £290m.
So why did a bunch of masked activists aligned with Smash Speciesism and Animal Rebellion want to blockade the site? Their very brief press release refers to the slaughter method used at the Ashton facility: “CO2 gas chambers.”
I had never heard of carbon monoxide slaughter before and began my inevitable descent down a Google rabbithole. “Is it cruel to stun animals with carbon dioxide?” asked a BBC feature from 2018, explaining that “While sheep and cattle are still mostly stunned using a captive-bolt stun pistol, pigs and poultry are now more often stunned using carbon dioxide.”
The article goes on to explain how this method of slaughter works, and how it compares to the electric stun-gun approach.
Pigs are stunned using a 70% to 90% carbon dioxide concentrate. They are typically loaded in groups of about half a dozen onto something like a paternoster lift, which lowers them gradually into ever higher concentrations of the gas. Once the animals have been stunned, they must be bled within 15 seconds to avoid the risk of them regaining consciousness.
Using an electric stun-gun, a method still used in some abattoirs, is instantaneous. However, it requires pigs to be separated from the rest of the group. As highly social animals, this causes significant distress, according to the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA). There is also a risk that the animals will not be properly stunned due to human error.
Philip Lymbery, who runs the highly-respected charity Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), writes that the carbon dioxide method “involves lowering pigs into a gas chamber containing CO2, causing them to gasp for breath and hyperventilate, causing pain and panic amongst the terrified animals.” He adds: “This often goes on for 30-60 seconds or more.” CIWF’s website explains that “the gas acidifies their eyes, nostrils, mouths and lungs, meaning the animals feel like they are burning from the inside out for 15-60 seconds or more.”
“There are no preventive or corrective measures to the pain, fear and respiratory distress caused by the exposure to high CO2 concentrations as this is inherent to the stunning method,” says a scientific opinion published by the European Food Safety Authority in May 2020, a few months after the protesters blockaded the Ashton abattoir.
The practice was condemned by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), which is the government’s own advisory body, in 2003. Research showed that CO2 stunning involves a 10-second “period of breathlessness and hyperventilation” for pigs, at which point “there may be vocalisation and escape behaviour.” The pigs are desperately trying to get out of their cages, is what I think this means. “These signs are followed by loss of posture and onset of convulsions.”
The government advisory body wrote: “We conclude that the use of high concentrations of CO2 to stun and kill pigs is not acceptable and we wish to see it phased out in five years.”
That was 19 years ago, and the opposite seems to have happened — this method of killing pigs is now more common than it was at the time. That seems to be because it is more cost-effective. A UK Food Standards Agency report “found that 7 slaughterhouses using CO2 were processing more pigs during the same time as 120 plants using the more labour-intensive electrical stunning method,” writes Lymbery.
Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA have called for this method of killing to be outlawed until more humane systems can be developed. They say lowering pigs into these gas chambers falls way short of any reasonable standard of humane slaughter, defined by the RSPCA as “when an animal is either killed instantly or rendered insensible until death ensues, without pain, suffering or distress”.
CIWF says it recently wrote to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and tweeted about a reply from the government. “We welcome their recognition that action is needed, but they've failed to set a date to end the practice,” the tweet said. “Currently millions of pigs a year suffer immensely as they die, gasping for breath.”
That BBC story I quoted earlier contains a line that made my blood boil when I read it. “Abattoirs effectively face a choice between causing short-term physical distress [the CO2 method], or social distress over a longer period of time [the stun-gun method].” That’s an interesting way of framing it — the abattoirs face a choice between two methods, both of which, by the admission of the people who do them, cause terrible suffering and distress to the pigs.
They also, of course, have a third option available to them: not to kill the pigs if a humane method isn’t available. Or, if global conglomerates whose income depends on killing millions of animals every year are unlikely to regard that as a viable option, then doesn’t it fall to the rest of us?
I don’t eat meat, but not for the cool environmental reasons that are driving an extraordinary boom in “plant-based” food, now seemingly marketed by any company that wants to attract young customers, from ASDA to McDonald’s. Arguably this planet-focused vegetarianism and veganism is a trend fuelled by millennial consumers — amongst the Gen Z-ers I know, there seems to be growing discussion of speciesism: the idea that many of us labour under the belief that one species (our own) is more important than another.
It's not a word that rolls off the tongue or one I had even heard until recently. But I suppose it feels closer to my own reasons for not eating meat: that making animals suffer terribly in order to provide us with food is a horrible abuse of our power over them. It’s so obviously cruel and, unlike some of our ancestors, we don’t need to do it.
Which isn’t to say I’m any sort of evangelist on this issue — or haven’t been to date, anyway. I rarely talk about not eating meat or tweet about it, or confiscate my colleagues at The Mill's chicken sandwiches. This must be perhaps the first time I’ve ever written about it. I’m not an activist by nature and you won’t find me suiting up in a balaclava outside an abattoir in the early hours.
But I think something about that press release grabbed me, and what’s the point in starting a newspaper if you can’t occasionally try to persuade your readers of something you believe in.
It always strikes me as bizarre that we Brits describe ourselves as a nation of animal lovers when we eat them in almost every meal. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that in 2016, 1.1 billion land animals were slaughtered for food in this country. A different source breaks that down a bit: “2.6 million cattle, 10 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep and lambs, 80 million fish and 950 million birds.”
In one of his blogs, Lymbery wonders how we can “react strongly to cruelty to our companion animals, yet seemingly turn a blind eye to the intolerable suffering of farm animals?” He goes on:
Scientists have proved beyond doubt that pigs are every bit as intelligent as dogs, yet the life of a pig on an industrial farm is appalling. Just imagine how dog lovers would react if Labradors or French Bulldogs, our current most favoured dog breeds, were treated in the same way as a factory farmed pig. Mothering sows giving birth in farrowing crates so small they can’t even turn around for weeks at a time. Piglets’ teeth are often clipped and their tails cut off without anaesthetic to stop them from tail biting in the barren conditions.
This week’s hearing at Manchester Magistrates Court was due to last five days. Pilgrim's Pride and the police gave their evidence on Tuesday and at lunchtime yesterday, the judge found that there was “no case to answer” — not due to ethical reasons, but on something of a technicality — it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the protestors were on private property.
What the activists have accomplished, for me at least, is highlighting a terrible way of imposing suffering on animals — one that is happening on a vast scale, right here in Greater Manchester. I think it’s up to all of us what we do with that information.
Mill media picks
📺 Watch: Day to Day, a short film by Ancoats-based couple Freya Chappell and Ramiro Munoz, explores the day-to-day racism experienced by five black and mixed-race people living in Manchester. Watch for free here.
🎧 Listen: Jazz and punk doesn’t sound like it should work together, but it does. Thunder, the latest single from Maruja, jazz-punk band based in Chorlton, has been described as “fucked up hellfire” but also “a cosmo-jazz vacuum that carries all the stillness of an abandoned battleground”. Listen here.
📖 Read: A moving story in BBC Manchester about Marjorie Rigby, a 102-year-old great grandmother from Dukinfield who has finally found out the final resting place of her stillborn daughter Laura. Although she was told her daughter had died, she never knew what happened to her body. "I was just taken back to my room and left," she said. "No-one came to talk to me and tell me how to get on with life."
Our weekend to do list
🎄 The weather might be on the warm side, but winter is here. How do we know? The Christmas Markets are basically on our doorstep in St Ann’s Square, with the usual offering of bratwurst, steins of beer, kitschy gifts and enough sugar to lull you into a coma. Jack recommends the cannoli from Tentazioni.
🧛 Let The Right One In is showing at the Royal Exchange for one more week, a stage adaptation based on the book (also made into a film) about a 12-year-old boy and his friendship with Eli, a strange girl who moves in next door. “When a butchered body is found in a nearby forest, Oskar slowly unravels the truth about Eli." More here.
🎶 All Night Flight Records, an experimental record store in Stockport, is hosting the Berlin label Tax Free Records on Saturday evening. Expect psychedelia, synth pop and post-punk, with a surprise: the second half of the gig is at a secret location, disclosed on the night. More here.
🎸 Sleeping Together, an indie band known for their “Shit Indie Disco” DJ sets in Liverpool, are playing an intimate show at Fuel in Withington. Tickets are £9.
🎻 There are still tickets left for A Night at the Opera at Manchester Cathedral, a candlelit evening that includes works from Puccini, Verdi, Rossini and Mozart, performed by “some of the country’s greatest opera singers”. Tickets are £27.
🎺 And finally, a night at the Hallé which is not to be missed. Hallé Brass will be performing works from the Renaissance to the present day, including a hauntingly beautiful arrangement of Calm Before the Storm. Tickets are £16.