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3 February 2015, 09:19 | Updated: 30 March 2016, 13:50
Hidden cameras at a halal slaughterhouse in North Yorkshire have caught the alleged mistreatment of animals on camera.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has launched an investigation into the footage from the Bowood Lamb abattoir in Thirsk, saying there was "no excuse for treating animals in the way shown on the video'' and adding that prosecutions could follow.
Animal rights group Animal Aid used hidden cameras to record footage over a period of three days in December.
The footage apparently shows, aming other things, sheep being kicked in the face and head, lifted by their ears, fleeces or legs, and hurled into solid structures.
The law requires abattoirs to stun animals before slaughter to prevent unnecessary suffering, but there are exemptions for Jewish and Muslim producers.
Under the halal code, animals are supposed to be killed quickly, with a single sweep of a surgically-sharp knife. They should not see the knife before they are slaughtered, or witness the death of other animals.
The video footage appears to show that these rules were not adhered to at Bowood, where more than 4,000 sheep were filmed being killed.
Sheep appeared to have knives sharpened in front of them and watched their flock-mates bleeding to death before being shackled and hoisted.
Kate Fowler, head of campaigns at Animal Aid, said the scenes were "inexcusable''.
Animal Aid also criticised the poor design of the slaughterhouse.
The group said that sheep fell some distance from a chute on to a slippery floor in the kill area and were often unable to stand.
They were then frequently thrown head-first into a solid upright structure, part of the conveyor, Animal Aid said.
Under UK law, slaughtered animals that have not been stunned must remain in position for at least 20 seconds after their throats are cut, to ensure loss of consciousness.
But 86% of the sheep at Bowood were moved before that amount of time had elapsed, some in as little as one second, according to Animal Aid.
Although Government-appointed vets are supposed to be on hand in all abattoirs the size of Bowood, none were seen during the three days of filming.
Animal Aid said that, when it gained access to the abattoir, it did not know it was a non-stun establishment.
The group is calling for independently monitored CCTV cameras to be compulsory at slaughterhouses.
Slaughterhouses in the UK are regulated by the FSA, which provides operating licences and carries out inspections.
A prepared statement from the FSA said:
"The Food Standards Agency takes animal welfare at abattoirs very seriously, which is why we immediately suspended the licences of the slaughtermen involved.
There is no excuse for treating animals in the way shown on the video and we are therefore investigating the footage with a view to prosecution. We are also continuing to investigate all the circumstances around the incident to ensure proper safeguards are introduced to stop this happening in the future.''
An FSA spokesman added:
"Four slaughtermen have had their licences suspended and we are investigating.
It means they can't operate as slaughtermen and work with live animals.
When the FSA has finished investigating it will need to consider if there is sufficient evidence of a breach of animal welfare legislation to justify a referral to the Crown Prosecution Service, which would decide whether to prosecute or not.''
Asked about the allegations, William Woodward, one of the abattoir's directors, said: "We have no comment to make.''
A petition demanding an outright ban on slaughtering animals without stunning them first has attracted more than 100,000 backers - but the Government insisted last week that it still had "no intention'' of outlawing religious slaughter.
Campaigners backed by celebrities including comedian Ricky Gervais, actress Sadie Frost and Queen guitarist Brian May will now press for a fresh Commons debate on the issue after quickly exceeding the six-figure threshold required on the parliamentary petition site to trigger a possible time slot.
Figures released by the British Veterinary Association last week show that the number of animals undergoing ritual slaughter without stunning has soared in the UK in the past year.
Campaigning by Muslims for traditional methods of slaughter is said to have led to a 60% rise in the number of animals having their throats cut while conscious.
Last year, 2.4 million sheep and goats were killed without being stunned in halal and Jewish shechita abattoirs, according to the BVA.
Animal Aid said it recognised that there was a risk of the video stirring up anti-Muslim feeling, but added: "Withholding release of the footage would be a betrayal of our key mission: to expose and combat animal cruelty.''