Horse slaughter rules violated, video shows

Video secretly filmed this year at two horse abattoirs in Quebec and Alberta reveals what animal-welfare experts say is systematically inhumane treatment.

Video secretly filmed this year at two horse abattoirs in Quebec and Alberta reveals what animal-welfare experts say is systematically inhumane treatment, two years after cruel practices at another slaughterhouse were brought to the federal government's attention.

In this image taken from a hidden-camera video, a horse collapses after being shot by a worker at the Richelieu Meat abattoir in Quebec. The animal's head catches on the rail of its kill pen. ((Video provided by Canadian Horse Defence Coalition))

Too many horses slipped or fell in the moments before being shot and too many were whipped or shocked with electric prods, according to independent audits based on the footage.

As well, the hidden-camera video doesn't show anyone checking the horses to ensure they're unconscious before they're strung up to have their throats slit. If they were still awake, it would violate federal regulations.

In one scene, a horse writhes in agony after it's shot in the face with a .22 rifle, then continues to squirm after a second shot to the head. It finally collapses 20 seconds later when the slaughterer, dressed in blue coveralls and a baseball cap, reloads and fires a third round into its head.

Another horse is left to thrash violently for 30 seconds after the first bullet doesn't knock it out. In one of the worst cases in the video, a horse starts flailing its legs three minutes after it is shot — which can happen while it's unconscious, but no one is seen checking to ensure that's the case. 

Yet another animal is jolted 30 times with an electric prod, including in the face, which breaks federal rules.

The disturbing scenes are contained in video given to CBC News by the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition. The group won't say how it got the footage or who took it, but the coalition provided an unedited copy of the video, filmed in February at Bouvry Exports in Fort MacLeod, Alta., and Richelieu Meats in Massueville, Que.

'I was shocked': official

Enforcement of federal slaughterhouse regulations is the jurisdiction of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which has the power to force abattoirs to make changes or, in the worst cases, to shut them down.

Veterinarian Brian Evans, executive vice-president of the CFIA, said he had no idea there were problems at the plants until he saw excerpts of the video posted on the internet by the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition.

"Quite honestly, I was shocked, angered, dismayed," Evans said. "I don't — and I don't think that we as an agency — accept the videos, in terms of that type of activity to be acceptable within the standards that we attempt to deliver."

The CFIA has at least one official at every slaughter facility, and they are supposed to file reports about any serious errors. But Evans said his agency has no reports about the Bouvry or Richelieu plants from the dates in question. He said an investigation is underway.

A significant concern raised by the video is whether horses are strung up before they're confirmed unconscious, said Geoff Urton of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. 

"We did see evidence that some of those horses were breathing, and some evidence of voluntary movement," he said. 

Separate audits of the footage, commissioned by the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, found other violations at both plants.

A review of the 189 slaughters on the Bouvry facility video, carried out by animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin, found six per cent of its horses had to be fired on a second time when the first shot didn't knock them out or kill them. An audit by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies put the number at seven per cent — exceeding the standard of five per cent.

Those limits also stipulate that no more than one per cent of animals can slip or fall in the kill pen before they're shot, but the audits found that threshold was exceeded at both Bouvry and Richelieu.

As for jolting horses in the face with an electrical prod, Grandin told CBC News that's "a wilful act of abuse" and an automatic failed audit.

"Something like that horse being whipped in the face, I'd blame that on plant management. Plant management needs to be controlling that stuff," she said.

Problems 2 years ago

Many of the horses destined for slaughter are race or workhorses no longer fit for their former jobs, or unwanted pets.

Because of state-level bans enacted in 2007, they can't be butchered in the United States. That's spurred the sector in Canada, where the latest statistics show that equine slaughter has doubled every two years since 2005.

The meat is almost exclusively exported to Europe and Japan, where it's considered a delicacy. Bouvry Exports, owned by the same company as Richelieu Meats, is one of the industry's largest operations.

Two years ago, similar secret footage inside Natural Valley Farms in Neudorf, Sask., revealed conditions that government officials promised to address. The floors were too slippery, causing horses to fall and panic while in the kill pen, and horses were sometimes butchered while still conscious.

The farm went into receivership later that year and subsequently closed.

The CFIA now says that it's installing cameras in abattoirs, but that they're not yet being monitored independently because the agency doesn't have the legal authority to make them mandatory.

Several U.S. beef plants that began independent video monitoring last year say animal handling improved almost immediately.

That's what it will take for Grandin to ever give her stamp of approval to another slaughterhouse, she said.

"They better put in video auditing that is audited by a third party that can tune in at any time, so they never know when anyone's watching."