Compassion in World Farming is delighted to be a partner of the Sustainable Food Trust. I’ve long admired the work of Patrick Holden and what he has achieved at the helm of this forward thinking organisation. The Trust is engaged in hugely important work to find a truly sustainable solution to feeding the world. I was thrilled to be asked to give my opinion on the role of vets in factory farming.

James Herriot, hero of the best-selling book and TV series All Creatures Great and Small is perhaps the UK’s best-known vet – a nation fell under his spell. The image of a young man willing to battle the elements and trudge through manure, all to be kicked and knocked over whilst trying to treat ungrateful animals has stuck in our public consciousness. The image of a trustworthy local farm vet pottering around the countryside prevails.

But there is a darker side to the veterinary profession that is hidden from public view. A growing number of vets work on farms that bear no resemblance to Herriot folklore. They work in dimly lit sheds and in abattoirs, and their work helps to prop up the factory farming system. Their aim is to keep animals alive long enough to be slaughtered profitably or to ensure they keep churning out enough milk or eggs to be commercially viable. This is the less romantic side of the veterinary profession.

I’m sure few vets dream of working in an abattoir, but slaughterhouse jobs have regular hours and there is a genuine opportunity to do good for animals at arguably the most vulnerable point in their lives. A slaughterhouse vet can minimise the suffering of tens of thousands of animals when they are at risk of pain and distress.

By law, abattoirs in the UK must have a vet on site. Their role is to check that animals arriving and being unloaded are in a fit state to be slaughtered. They also check how animals are handled before slaughter and whether or not they are properly stunned. ‘Missed stuns’ can run at between 5 and 10 percent at poorly run abattoirs causing great suffering. The other part of their job is leading a team of meat inspectors who monitor cleanliness and the processing of carcasses to control risks to health and hygiene.

I leant more about this secret world when I met a vet at an animal welfare conference in Brussels. Jean-Claude Latife spent nine years working in UK abattoirs only quitting in 2010 after being threatened with a butcher’s knife by a drug-crazed slaughterman who objected when he paused a production line because of a hygiene concern. I can’t use his real name as the incident is subject to ongoing legal action.

In his experience, UK slaughterhouses are full of untrained workers who show up to work drunk or on drugs. Vets are pressurised or intimidated into turning a blind eye when they witness dangerous and volatile workers mistreating animals.

He described the working conditions to me: “You are surrounded by death, noise, shit and concrete, but it’s something you get used to after a while. I felt I was playing an important role in a place where there is a huge risk of animals suffering, at every stage of the process.”

Vets are uniquely positioned to make a difference but Latife’s experiences suggest that some are intimidated into keeping quiet.

The questionable role of vets in farming is not confined to the end of animal’s lives. Vets play a vital part at every stage of a farm animal’s life, treating and preventing disease, but are also complicit in a system in which suffering is inbuilt.

Vets who make a living on factory farms are becoming institutionalised. Industrial farms are big businesses where the bottom line is all important. Some vets who work on these farms are affected by this culture and come to view animals as if they were faulty machines.

They have become servants of the industrial farming machine, they are the technicians that are called in to fix things before they break down, to patch things up and keep the system going. Their job is to keep animals healthy for long enough to be productive. They cannot afford to upset their clients by accusing them of institutional cruelty – to do so would be professional suicide. The system remains self-reinforcing.

We need vets to contribute to the development of sustainable, healthy farming systems. Vets are in a unique position and have the power to change the system for good. If we are to build truly sustainable food systems then vets have a key role to play in leading the way forwards.

James Herriot said he hoped people will realise how, “totally helpless animals are, how dependent on us, trusting as a child must that we be kind and take care of their needs . . . [They] are an obligation put on us, a responsibility we have no right to neglect nor to violate by cruelty.”

What would he have made of what has happened to animals as they have disappeared from fields and into factory farms?

Images by Compassion in World Farming

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