Pigs wait to be slaughtered at a slaughterhouse. (Shin Ji-hye/The Korea Herald)
On a sunny day in April, a truck carrying pigs approached a slaughterhouse in Gyeonggi Province. When the truck arrived, workers prodded the pigs to come out, but they would not move down the steep ramp.
Workers responded by beating them with clubs, and the pigs hurried out squealing. The squealing continued until they moved to where they were slaughtered.
This is only a glimpse of the animal abuse and cruelty involved in transporting animals from farms to holding pens and slaughterhouses, according to Choe Nong-hoon, a professor of veterinary medicine at Konkuk University, who visits the sites regularly.
“To transport thousands of animals a day faster, carriers, who are pressed for time, beat them with clubs and electric prods, put skewers into their anuses or spear their legs with a shovel in holding and transport. It’s a blind spot for animal welfare,” he said, showing pictures he had taken of bleeding pigs and cows.
“As for disabled cows that can’t move, they are pulled by a car (with ropes tied to) their front legs. This makes cows feel the extreme pain of tearing their limbs,” he said, pointing out a photo of this process.
He said one of the reasons for these abuses in transport is a lack of understanding about animals.
“Pigs have short legs so when the slope is too steep, they are scared to walk forward. And because they can’t see well, they hesitate when the passage is bent and narrow. If a facility (in a holding area or transport truck) were created to make them walk more comfortably, this would subject animals to less pain and increase convenience for workers,” he said, adding that animals should not be subjected to unnecessary suffering before dying.
The professor said we should pay attention to animal cruelty in transport not only because of animal welfare -- because humans have an obligation to minimize animals’ pain, even if they are food animals -- but also for other reasons related to economics and human health.
“If an animal gets too much stress right before it dies, the quality of the meat drops significantly. The low-quality meat is then sold at a lower price or even thrown away. This means even if farmers raise cows and pigs well, they don’t get the right price as the money just evaporates,” he said.
Considering the number of animals slaughtered each year in South Korea, he said the losses were not small. He estimates them at hundreds of billions of won per year. Last year, around 900,000 cows and 18 million pigs were slaughtered, according to government data.
Another reason is related to human health, the professor said.
He showed a picture of a cow’s hindquarters covered in feces, saying the cow discharged feces because of fear.
“Although workers cut feces out with a knife, there is no way to get rid of it completely. They are then washed with water and sold to the market. Because the microorganisms on the fillets are not easily detected in quality tests, it’s inevitable that consumers eat them,” he said, calling it a public health hazard.
To minimize stress and fear at the moment of death, Korea began to implement an animal welfare certification system for slaughterhouses in 2014. Certified slaughterhouses ban animal beating and require height-adjustable trucks and a water supply system during confinement prior to slaughter. However, of the 90 slaughterhouses for mammals nationwide, only three are certified.
Han Seung-tae, author of “Born as Meat,” said another cause of animal cruelty in Korea is factory farming, which is designed to maximize production while minimizing costs.
While most farm animals suffer from being confined to small spaces, chickens and female pigs suffer the most, said Han, who worked in pig, chicken and cow farms for four years.
For chickens in battery cages, each bird is typically raised in a space that is 20 centimeters wide, 20 centimeters long and 30 centimeters high.
“The worst case I saw was four chickens in a space a little larger than a microwave oven, and the weakest one was laid underneath and was unable to move. In many cases, it was common that chickens, which are stressed out, peck at each other, they bleed and wounds fester,” he said.
In the case of pigs, females are subjected to the worst conditions.
“When female pigs are 6 months old, reproductive age, they enter a stall where they can only sit and get up. They spend most of their three-year reproductive period in the stall,” Han said.
“This is because of efficiency. They need to be better controlled and also immobilized for artificial insemination.”
Recognizing the cruelty of battery cages and sow stalls, countries around the world are looking to end them. Steps are underway to phase out these systems in the European Union, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and some states in the US, though phaseouts are often voluntary and can take many years. In Korea, the discussion is still in the early stages.
The EU goes further, requiring farms to provide toys -- such as balls and chains hanging from ceilings -- to all pigs. Among the most intelligent animals, pigs can’t stand being bored.
In Korea, although change is happening slowly, the number of farms with animal welfare livestock certifications has been on the rise since their inception in 2012.
In certified farms, laying hens are raised on the ground. Debeaking and forced molting -- withdrawing food for 15 days to increase egg production -- are prohibited. Farms turn off the lights at night to allow them to sleep.
Pigs in certified farms can’t be locked up in stalls. Cutting their teeth and tails is prohibited. Enrichment items such as straw, wood chips, sawdust and leather straps are provided. This reduces aggression in pigs by giving them something to chew.
But the pace of change is still slow. Currently there are about 300 animal welfare certified farms in Korea, out of over 20,000 farms in total.
Kook Joon-in, head of the Korea Animal Welfare Association, said farms are reluctant to switch to animal welfare certified practices due to profitability.
“We can’t force farms because this is their livelihood. To operate animal welfare certified farms, the number of animals should be reduced while more workers should be hired. This causes farmers to lose about 30 percent in profits,” Kook said.
Still, he predicted that the pace of change would pick up. “The number of consumers interested in animal welfare certified meat is clearly rising. This trend will change the culture of farms, although it will take some time.”
He said he hoped the government would provide subsidies to support such farms and promote animal welfare certified meat at marts and restaurants to make it more recognizable. It should also take steps to reduce the confusion caused by misleading advertising, he said.
By Shin Ji-hye (email@example.com)