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Piggy in the middle

Thu 22 Mar 2012 by Sue Neales (The Australian)

This article relates to the following facility: LE Giles & Sons Abattoir (Aussie Abattoirs)

COLIN Giles is adamant he has done nothing wrong. Nor does the 71-year-old Gippsland abattoir owner think he is cruel or inhumane. But that is how he and his 79-year-old brother, Ray Giles, have been portrayed since Victorian meat authorities shut down the Giles family's small Trafalgar meatworks last November.

The closure followed a damaging video sent to the authorities by animal-rights group Animals Australia

The short, edited film, shot by a work experience student who passed the footage on to Animals Australia, shows pigs being killed at the L.E. Giles & Sons abattoir, on the outskirts of the small country town, on November 21. The grainy footage, now on the Animals Australia website, reveals a group of pigs being rendered unconscious with a stun gun before having their throats cut. One of the unconscious pigs takes a long time to die -- six "agonising minutes", according to the voice-over that accompanies the website footage.

Another pig is bashed on the head with a sledgehammer after escaping from its pen and leaping around the killing room floor among workers holding razor-sharp knives .

All the pigs can see their pen mates being slaughtered before their turn arrives. There are also images of pigs being stunned incorrectly by a young worker, with the two electronic probes inserted into the sensitive ears, and possibly eyes, of the death-row pigs rather than the metal prongs touching the skin behind the ears, as is recommended.

The evidence was enough to have the Giles family abattoir summarily shut down by PrimeSafe Victoria, which licenses the state's domestic abattoirs.

PrimeSafe chief executive Brian Casey said at the time he was determined to stamp out any inhumane treatment of animals.

"I am appalled by the treatment of animals shown in the video footage. I have advised the abattoir owners that it is my intention to take action to cancel their PrimeSafe licence," he said.

Fast forward three months and there is growing concern in the local Trafalgar community that the elderly Giles brothers did not receive a fair go.

Why, ask many, was the Trafalgar abattoir that turned over $7 million annually, employed 30 locals and killed 24,000 lambs, 10,000 pigs and 4000 head of cattle a year, not given time to remedy any faults in its killing floor practices or meatworks layout?

And were the scenes pictured in the video, disturbing as they were, actually a display of systemic cruelty by the business or an isolated incident of poor workplace practices by young staff without adequate supervision?

"I think Brian Casey and PrimeSafe have overreacted because they were gun-shy after the Animals Australia and (ABC) Four Corners live-cattle export expose about cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs and didn't want a case like that in Victoria," says Trevor Stever, a government meat inspector for 40 years, now retired.

"But this was nothing like the cruelty in Indonesia; it was bad practices, bad quality assurance, that could have been straightened out in a day if the Gileses had been given the chance.

"I've known Ray and Col since 1983 and they are absolutely without reproach, really honest, decent gentlemen, and now they are ruined, their business has been shut down and their names dragged through the mud."

Bronwyn Cowan, a free-range, rare-breed pig farmer from nearby Darnum, who used to get her pigs killed at the Trafalgar abattoir because she liked the Gileses' personal touch, abhors animal cruelty.

But she is angry at the way the family's generosity, and perhaps naivety, were taken advantage of by animal activists and the harsh way with which they were dealt.

"It is not a pleasant occupation the Gileses are carrying out, but they have tried to do it as best as they could; but now they have been made out to be the worst people in the world, like evil killers or animal torturers," Cowan says.

"To watch what that family has been put through by this is just disgusting. Yes, this is a workplace where animals are killed, but I don't believe there is any deliberate cruelty there; what you have is incorrect work practices on display that the business should have been allowed to try and fix."

A second retired government meat inspector, Garry Dodd, does not believe any cruelty can be observed in the Animals Australia video. He points out that the electronic stunner was working correctly as the pigs were rendered immediately unconscious before slaughter. He says the twitching of their bodies after their throats were cut is just normal muscular activity. He also points out that the abattoir had approval to kill pigs in a group pen where they could see other pigs being killed.

The sledgehammer blow to the escaped pig, Dodd says, is the standard contingency plan -- use of a blunt instrument -- for knocking out a pig when it is endangering abattoir workers, although he concedes a captive bolt gun would have been better.

At the heart of the issue that felled the Giles brothers and their business, says Dodd, is the deep disconnect being suffered by mainly urban Australians between their meat and how it is obtained.

"There is no doubt what you can see (in the video) is confronting; but what goes on in abattoirs is all about the loss of life, which is never pleasant. But that is how and why you can have lamb chops and ham on your plate tomorrow."

Col Giles, managing director of the family business, also blames his family's plight on city ignorance of farming life, as well as last year's political furore about live-cattle exports to Indonesia.

"We're too old to get into a fight now, but we want to clear our family name; that's why we are prepared to talk about this now," he says. "We've always had great respect in the industry and the local community has been really supportive of us; but I just don't think city people really understand about killing the way country people do."

The first Col and Ray Giles knew that they were in trouble with the authorities was a phone call from PrimeSafe's deputy chief, Brendan Ryan, on the evening of November 24 last year. Out of the blue, they were told their abattoir licence was being suspended on animal cruelty grounds pending an investigation, and that their meatworks could not operate the next day or in the foreseeable future. They were ordered to report to PrimeSafe's head office in Melbourne, 150km to the west, at 2pm the next day.

Once there, Ray and Col Giles, together with their quality assurance manager, were shown an Animals Australia film of the suspect pig-killing practices at their abattoir. "That was the first we knew that there was a video taken by that girl," Col Giles says.

"That girl" was Sarah Lynch, a member of Animals Australia. Two weeks earlier, she had asked Giles if she could take photographic stills inside his meatworks for a college assignment. He says she said she was a photography student and, having granddaughters the same age, he agreed.

On her first visit, Lynch photographed the killing of cattle and sheep. A few days later, Lynch and her camera were present at the abattoir's weekly Monday pig and lamb slaughter.

"We've been in business for 60 years and we didn't think we had anything to hide," said Col Giles last week, speaking outside the now closed family meatworks.

"We've had schools come through our abattoir; they've run state meat inspector safety courses here and we've been audited regularly. We've always had work experience students here and that's why I let that young photography girl in."

But according to Animals Australia director Glenys Oogjes, Lynch was so appalled by what she saw that she immediately knocked on Animals Australia's door with the footage. Two days after receiving the video, Animals Australia sent a copy of the footage to PrimeSafe. It was accompanied by an animal cruelty complaint against the L.E. Giles abattoir.

The Animals Australia website details the basis of its complaint about the Trafalgar operations to PrimeSafe and explains that the video was shot after "Kate" (an alias) was "given unprecedented open access to an abattoir in Victoria's Gippsland".

"What she captured on film shocked and appalled authorities who, within hours of receiving a formal complaint and video from Animals Australia, shut the slaughterhouse down," the Animals Australia website says. "Australian regulations and standards failed to protect these animals from cruelty, but as the footage reveals, even if they had, animals would still have been afraid; they still would have suffered."

Colin Giles says that PrimeSafe's Ryan told him at the Melbourne meeting that it was an "open-and-shut case" of cruelty and that he was cancelling their abattoir licence permanently. They were also warned that any animal cruelty charges, if proven, could carry a jail sentence.

"Then PrimeSafe told us that if we surrendered our licence to them that afternoon, there would be no further investigation," Giles recalled this week.

"And then they asked us what we thought. But I don't think we said much at all. We were devastated, dumbfounded -- we certainly felt like we were being forced to hand our licence in."

Giles accepts that some of the abattoir practices captured in the video footage were not as good as they could have been. He admits the sledgehammer, left after machinery repairs the previous day, should not have been on the slaughter room floor.

He blames a young trainee worker for not cutting the pigs' throats as efficiently as possible.

"But we have been audited every three months by PrimeSafe. If we were doing things wrong, why weren't they picked up before and why weren't we given a chance to take corrective action or offer our workers more training?"

What the Trafalgar community wants to know is why two elderly men were interrogated and pressured in Melbourne by meat safety authorities into handing over their operating licence. PrimeSafe declined to discuss the issue with The Australian this week. Ryan, in the role of acting chief executive, said the fact was that the Trafalgar facility was no longer licensed.

"Colin Giles can say whatever he likes," he said. "We've provided enough comment and have nothing further to add."

However, a PrimeSafe spokesman told the ABC last week that it rejected any claims of bullying or that it forced the abattoir owners to cancel their licence.

Chief executive Brian Casey, in an article in the Latrobe Valley Express last December, defended the vigour with which the regulator acted. "It's the responsibility of the abattoir owners and the operators to run the facility in accordance with appropriate standards, and that was not done," he is quoted as saying.

Animals Australia's Oogjes maintains operations at the L. E. Giles abattoir were cruel and inhumane and that PrimeSafe clearly believed it deserved to be shut down. "I find it disturbing they would still defend the traumatic use of a sledgehammer and the cruel way they were incorrectly stunning and killing the pigs," Oogjes said yesterday.

The Victorian Department of Primary Industries said yesterday its investigation was continuing into whether any charges of cruelty would be laid against Ray and Colin Giles.