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Behind the meat processing factories scam

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

One of the biggest rackets in the country are of illegal “cold storages” or “meat processing” factories.

Last year I went to Belagavi, Karnataka to answer a frantic call for help by local residents who had uncovered a number of cold storages /meat processing factories that were killing thousands of buffaloes illegally. I took the local politicians and went to these factories. Getting in was a problem, as the owners, hearing that I had come, had fled and locked the factories. However, I entered and we found ourselves knee deep in blood, thousands of freshly hacked bones, and flies. The place was like the worst part of hell that one can imagine. This was shown on television repeatedly and you can see it on the net even today.

The factory was not a secret operation. It was a large well built structure and could not have operated if the police were not part of the pay-off system. The local police commissioner was found to be part of this. The cows were smuggled in from Goa and then slaughtered in a field. The dead animals were brought into the factory and cut and then the filthy meat packaged and exported. The factory was unlicensed, and yet had been standing there for years. It was shut down and then reopened by the local member of parliament – you can guess why. So, the grammar I should use is present tense not past.

This is such an old scenario that it has made me very cynical about our so called “police” and local administrations. A similar racket was unearthed by me in Bihar – a locked “cold storage” next to a police chowki, which resisted any attempt to open it. It had, according to the police, been locked for years. I finally made all the calls to politicians in charge of the state, and we entered the cold storage and found the bodies of at least 15,000 cows. The owner was a Delhi person, a Hindu exporter. He had been exporting the meat for years. He ran out of the country and probably only came back when the police assured him that nothing would happen.

But my team and I persist and sometimes we are lucky enough to find that rare bureaucrat who is honest and determined to set things right.

We have found one in the government in Delhi this year.

The meat industry has three different components. Firstly, there are slaughterhouses where animals are killed and skinned. Second are meat shops where flesh is sold in retail. The third are meat processing factories where the meat is hacked into pieces, deboned, packaged and refrigerated for export. Cold storages are part of the meat processing factories and, usually, just rooms with slabs of filthy ice in sawdust, covered with blood.

The Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 and Rules provide for separate licensing for each of these three activities.

Let me give you an example from New Delhi. Delhi has only one licensed slaughterhouse which has its own meat processing unit, at Ghazipur. But numerous meat processing factories have sprung up at Lawrence Road Industrial Area, Keshavpuram, which process carcasses for export. Nobody has ever bothered to find out where the animals were being slaughtered, till the Delhi State Slaughterhouse Monitoring Committee set up an inspection.

The result: The Delhi Government has recently shut down two meat processing units in North Delhi owing to gross illegalities in their operation. The violations were initially reported to the Muncipal Corporation of Delhi in June 2019 after a detailed investigation. The animal husbandry department refused to do anything (the factories could not have run if the animal husbandry inspectors were not involved). The order for licence cancellation could only be done after the chief secretary of the Delhi Government intervened in January 2020. For years, these meat factories were running in the name of Sushil Ice Factory and Jagdish Ice Factory. The ownership of the factories had exchanged hands several times. Last year, it was established during an inspection that a cartel was operating these factories. The owner hired a contractor to operate the factory, who hired butchers, but the licenses from the Food Safety Department and Municipal Corporation were obtained in a third person’s name. The license under the Factories Act was obtained in the name of yet another individual. None of these persons had a real claim in the business, nor did they even work there. This was done to confuse every licensing body so that, if ever a violation was established, the owners who live in Uttar Pradesh could shift the blame to some fictitious person, replace him with some other name and carry on this illegal business.

These factories processed more than 800 buffalo carcasses and packaged them for export every month, but had no records of where these animals were being slaughtered. In reality, all these carcasses were sourced from illegal killing fields in rural Uttar Pradesh and a small “fine” was paid to the MCD vets and inspectors to regularise the meat. This process can only be termed as meat laundering.

A large portion of the meat which gets exported comes not from slaughterhouses complying with Indian Rules and Regulations, but through meat laundering. This is happening across the country and is the main reason why India is becoming the largest beef exporter in the world.

Slaughter and meat packaging is governed by several regulatory regimes – Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, factories licensing laws of the states, Water, Air and Environment Protection Acts implemented by the State Pollution Control Boards and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, etc. For export, additional registration with Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) is required.

Most meat exporters, registered with APEDA, bypass the food safety and pollution authorities either by bribing or taking advantage of the complete lethargy in these departments. APEDA gives registrations easily, without any inspections. Animals are bought illegally by butchers, posing as farmers and buying truckloads of buffaloes from “farmers’ markets” set up to help farmers exchange their animals. These are then trucked to illegal slaughterhouses and killed in filthy conditions, village backyards, trenching grounds, streets and alleys. Their bodies are cut up and processed in factories which are used by registered exporters. For every consignment of illegally procured carcasses, a small fine is paid to regularise it before exporting it.

Each of these meat processing units, operating in the garb of ice factories, packaged beef for 20 different brands for export. No ante mortem, post mortem or laboratory examination reports were maintained. No records were maintained regarding the slaughterhouse source for the carcasses, confirming that slaughter was conducted in unregistered places, usually in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. In order to legitimise such meat consignments, veterinary doctors of Municipal Corporation of Delhi used to levy a small penalty. The unauthorised meat consignments lack necessary permissions from the government of the source state as well as the government of the national capital, Delhi. According to protocol, such consignments need to be checked at the state border by the MCD/ Delhi Government and subsequently destroyed by inspecting officials. However, till date no consignment of the illegal meat has been stopped, or destroyed. This highlights the extent of systemic corruption, wherein municipal authorities, represented by veterinary doctors and the police, are guilty of colluding with meat traders.

Inspection of meat processing factories revealed that these factories did not even meet basic infrastructure requirements, such as adequate flooring, ceiling, tiling, lighting, ventilation conditions etc, that are needed to operate a meat factory in a hygienic manner. Facilities for sanitation and waste disposal, as well as the use of machinery appropriate for meat processing, were found lacking. Factory labourers were employed without proper employment records and were paid very little.

Labour law violations, pertaining to Employment Provident Fund / Employment Insurance System, were established. At every stage, food safety laws had been violated.

The inspection committee found that the MCD had permitted other trades to operate on the same premises as the meat processing factories and cold storages. For instance, ice, food grains (pulses, rice etc) could be stored in the same floor area where meat processing activities were being carried out. This is a very dangerous practice that impacts food safety and public health.

The Food Safety Department is required to regulate food processing businesses, but not one case had been booked against the factory owners of the meat processing units in Delhi despite operating without the mandatory license. While the conditions, in the Licensing and Registration Regulations 2011 under the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, are far from being met, the regulators are complicit in allowing them to operate.

It is important for the health of Indians that these cartels of meat traders, which are as big as the heroin/cocaine/smack and oxytocin mafias, are broken up. APEDA must become less corrupt and the export authorities must step in to stop meat laundering. There are State Slaughterhouse Monitoring Committees, which have been appointed by the Supreme Court. None of them work, but the Supreme Court must take monthly reports from them.

The state has a duty to ensure that animal slaughter is conducted only in places duly licensed by the Food Safety Department, State Pollution Control Board and has an NOC from the local body. Moreover, it should meet with all the conditions mandated in the Slaughterhouse Rules 2001, promulgated under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960.

Scores of other meat processing units in Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka, are working on similar lines and need to be brought under regulation. Undue focus on export must not take away the basic values of protection of cattle, as enshrined in the Article 48 of the Constitution of India. India’s bid to be the largest exporter of beef comes at a great price to the nation. In 2018-19; 1,23,66,38,398 kilograms of beef was exported to 84 countries.

More than 65 lakh buffaloes killed every year, only for export. Of this, 75 per cent would be cut illegally – so you can imagine how many policemen and local municipal officials, APEDA and export licence in-charges have lined their pockets.

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