A Melbourne abattoir has been allowed to continue operating despite being investigated for possible animal cruelty, after secretly recorded footage showed it boiling chickens alive in its slaughter process.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Lots of people buy free-range eggs because they figure the animals are probably treated better than battery hens.
That is true of their everyday lives, but when they stop laying eggs, it can be a different story.
Once their production slows down, free-range chickens are killed either on the farm or in slaughter houses.
One activist who’s filmed the slaughter is risking criminal prosecution by speaking publicly about the operation.
Pat McGrath reports and a warning: this story contains distressing footage.
PAT MCGRATH, REPORTER: When consumers pay top dollar for free-range eggs, this is the kind of life they hope they’re buying for hens.
But while free-range chickens are promised fortunate lives, they’re not guaranteed a humane death.
TAMARA KENNEALLY, DREAMERS HEN RESCUE: There’s never, ever been any footage shot of laying hens being slaughtered in Australia, never.
I do want people that eat eggs to watch it, just to know what’s happening to these girls.
Caged girls, barn girl, free-range girls – they all die like this.
PAT MCGRATH: These chickens have laid thousands of eggs. Now they’ve become by-products of an industry that deems hens spent when they’re 18 months old.
Their final hours have been secretly filmed.
TAMARA KENNEALLY: We have 73 chickens.
PAT MCGRATH: Seventy-three?
TAMARA KENNEALLY: Seventy-three, we have 17 sheep.
PAT MCGRATH: Tamara Kenneally was part of a small group of activists who broke into a Melbourne poultry abattoir and planted hidden cameras.
You’re taking on some risk by speaking out like this.
TAMARA KENNEALLY: Yes.
PAT MCGRATH: I mean you’ve broken the law here.
TAMARA KENNEALLY: Yes.
PAT MCGRATH: Why are you speaking out?
TAMARA KENNEALLY: Because it’s so upsetting, it’s so shocking and it needs to be seen.
PAT MCGRATH: The footage was taken inside the Star Poultry slaughter house in Melbourne over four months earlier this year.
These hens aren’t destined for our roast dinners. Layer hens are bonier than meat chickens so they’re usually made into pet food or stock powder.
TAMARA KENNEALLY: We concentrated on the different sections of the slaughtering.
So the first lot of footage we got was actually of the chickens in the crates, and then we put it above where the shackles are and get as much there as possible.
In the morning at sunrise the workers come in, and they start hanging them up by their feet, incredibly roughly.
There’s feet all over the ground. So when they’re actually hanging them up they’re doing it so roughly that their feet are coming off.
See her? She just, she got out and got away, and this worker sees her and comes and hits her with a pole.
PAT MCGRATH: Just whacked her.
TAMARA KENNEALLY: Yeah.
PAT MCGRATH: Industry regulations require hens to be stunned, then immediately killed.
They should all be dead here?
TAMARA KENNEALLY: They should all be dead here.
PAT MCGRATH: What’s this person, this guy, this worker here?
TAMARA KENNEALLY: This guy is supposed to slit their throats but see, she was still alive there. She is alive.
PAT MCGRATH: The chickens head towards a scalding tank that’s designed to strip their feathers.
They’re supposed to be dead but many are still alive.
TAMARA KENNEALLY: They were actually going through the conveyer on the shackles alive, and being dunked into the boiling water alive.
So they were being scalded to death basically, yeah.
Yeah, that poor girl. Look at her. Oh, she really, she really suffered going into that and, you know, this was happening every single night we got footage.
PAT MCGRATH: The group retrieved their vision most nights for four months.
The secret filming came to an end one night when Tamara returned to pick up her camera and it was gone.
TAMARA KENNEALLY: The owner actually ended up putting alarms and cameras in the property because I think he realised, after that camera, he found that camera, that something was going on.
PAT MCGRATH: Well, it is early morning at Star Poultry in Melbourne’s east.
We have come here because they won’t return our calls, they won’t answer our interview requests and in fact, they have actually put up a barrier here of crates so we can’t actually film what’s going on.
But we have already seen what’s going on and so have some of the top experts in animal welfare in Australia and they’re horrified.
KATE HARTCHER, RSPCA SCIENTIFIC OFFICER: I was extremely shocked and distressed watching this footage. Something like this should never occur and we really should have the appropriate oversight both within the abattoir and in terms of the government responsibility in monitoring animal welfare.
PAT MCGRATH: Victoria’s abattoir regulator, PrimeSafe, investigated Star Poultry after receiving a copy of this footage earlier this year and forced the company to make changes to its machinery and retrain staff.
The RSPCA is surprised that the Department of Agriculture, which has the power to shut down abattoirs, allowed Star Poultry to continue operating while it was being investigated.
KATE HARTCHER: We think that the abattoir should have been immediately shut down until all animal welfare risks can be avoided and any problems can be rectified.
It was extremely poor practice, and it was a systemic problem in the abattoir, so the abattoir shouldn’t have been running at all.
PAT MCGRATH: The Department of Agriculture wouldn’t tell us why it didn’t prosecute Star Poultry. It simply says it was happy with the changes ordered by PrimeSafe.
The RSPCA wants all abattoirs to be fitted with CCTV cameras and for footage to be readily available to authorities.
KATE HARTCHER: We have seen over the last few years there have been a number of incidents where animal mistreatment has occurred at abattoirs and the only reason that this gets brought to light is through undercover footage such as this footage.
That’s unacceptable, and it obviously shows that there’s a lack of appropriate auditing and a lack of appropriate regulation in this space.
PAT MCGRATH: State and territory governments are currently negotiating with the industry and welfare groups about a new set of poultry welfare guidelines.
Yet a tightening of slaughter regulations isn’t on the agenda.
The RSPCA says the industry is resisting any changes.
KATE HARTCHER: This is the first time in over 15 years that these standards have been reviewed.
The RSPCA has been a stake holder in this process and we’ve been extremely disappointed so far.
So we have seen that they are not science-based and they’re also not independent.
So to improve animal welfare we really need to have the standards improved as well as their implementation and, of course, their enforcement which is obviously not happening at the moment in Australia if we see this kind of footage.
PAT MCGRATH: Are people fooling themselves do you think about free range?
TAMARA KENNEALLY: Yes. They’re fooling themselves because they do want it to be kind and they’re not bad people. They want a kind choice but it’s not a kind choice.
LEIGH SALES: Pat McGrath reports.