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Oko-Oba Agege abattoir where unethical practices, negligence rule

About 8,000 cattle and ruminants valued at N1.6bn are said to be consumed in Lagos State on a daily basis. Over 30 percent of these cattle are slaughtered at the Oko-Oba Agege abattoir, making it the largest of the eight authorised abattoirs in the state. Armed with hints of unethical practices going on at the abattoir which may be posing health risks to meat consumers, Chinwe Agbeze spent three consecutive days under cover at the abattoir and reports on her findings.

 When a neighbour told me about the malpractices going on at abattoirs in Lagos, especially at Oko-Oba Agege abattoir where he said his friend works, my thoughts went to the risks to life that those malpractices could be resulting to. Among other things, he had alleged that veterinary doctors mandated to inspect the meat and certify it fit for human consumption are bribed by butchers to look the other way while diseased, dead and even pregnant animals and their foetuses are slaughtered and sold to unsuspecting consumers. Out of public health concern, I decided to investigate the claim.

On Monday, August 7, 2017, I took a trip to Oko-Oba Agege abattoir. It was 7.36am when I arrived at the place. My source had told me that slaughtering of cattle starts as early as 5am and continues till noon. I saw a lot of people trooping in and out of the abattoir – motorcyclists hauling bloodied sacks of meat portions making their way out of the abattoir, buyers heading to the bus-stop to catch a commercial bus, and motorcyclists waiting for passengers.

As I tried to enter the gate, I was stopped by a young man who could not have been more than 30 years of age. He told me I needed a ticket to get inside the abattoir.

“How much is the ticket?” I asked.

“N20,” he replied.

I gave him a N20 note and he handed me a ticket.

Immediately after money exchanged hands, a middle-aged man with tobacco-stained teeth and bloodshot eyes approached me.

“Wetin you wan buy?” he asked in Pidgin English. “I go carry you go where you go buy better meat wey dey cheap.”

I was new to the abattoir and so a guide was welcome. I told him I wanted to buy plenty of meat.

As we walked along, I glanced at the N20 pedestrian fee receipt in my hand. It had the inscription ‘Harmony Abattoir Management Services Limited, Lagos State Abattoir Complex, Oko-Oba Road, Agege”.

Not too far from the gate was a lairage labelled “Lairage 1”. From where I stood, I could see clothes spread on the rails of the lairage and getting closer, I saw human beings inside the lairage. Some were sleeping while others were either eating or leaning on a table inside the lairage. I could see their personal belongings inside the lairage as well. Heaps of wastes lay opposite the lairage. I found it shocking that human beings were sharing the lairage with animals.

Beside “Lairage 1” on the left was another lairage with fewer animals. Unlike “Lairage 1”, this second lairage was neat, more organised and was not being shared by humans. My guide told me this second lairage belonged to a private abattoir, the same company whose name was printed on the ticket issued to me at the gate.

Just before the private abattoir, I saw parked in a corner some Eko refrigerated meat vans. But while these refrigerated meat vans were sitting idle waiting to be hired, large chunks of meat were being transported on motorcycles in a most unhygienic manner.

At the slaughter slab

Before we entered the gate leading to where the animals are slaughtered, I saw a lifeless cow being pushed on a cart; it eventually ended up on the slaughter slab. I saw another very weak cow that had managed to make its way to the slab and my guide said it was trampled while on transit.

The slaughter slab sits on a large expanse of elevated cemented floor. I found the entire slab messy with blood and piles of animal dung some of which found their way into the adjoining gutters. Slaughtering was done simultaneously and randomly and the entire space was crowded with butchers, sellers, buyers, and women fetching water for the butchers to wash the animal. Apart from fetching water used in washing the meat, some of the women also deal in the internal organs of the animals, mainly intestines. There were also those selling cow skin, kidney and liver.

I observed that once a cattle or camel is led to the slaughter or brought in using a cart, part of its body is washed and its throat is slit. As soon as the blood begins to gush out, part of it is collected and emptied inside a bucket while the rest ends up on the ground. I asked what the blood was used for and was told it was used to prepare animal feed. The skin is removed and the internal organs are brought out. The meat is then cut into portions and sold to buyers.

While butchering was going on, I saw people stepping or standing on the meat.

Directly opposite the slaughter slab, I saw retailers selling meat arranged on tables in smaller quantities to buyers who could not afford to buy from the slab.

To the right behind the slaughter slab, cow skin was being processed into ‘ponmo’. I observed that the skin was put inside a large barrel of boiling water and left until it became hard. Behind the slab, there were women selling internal organs of animals while men were selling foetuses. A foetus, I was told, goes for between N3,500 and N5,000 depending on the size and the buyer’s bargaining power.

I did not see anyone inspecting the meat. When I asked for the veterinary doctors, my guide said I had to go to their office to see them.

Seeing that I had spent so much time asking questions without making a single purchase, my guide said I could take pictures or even a video of the slaughtering with my phone.

“No, I’m not here to take pictures, I want to buy meat but I need good meat,” I said as I turned to look at him. In order not to blow my cover, I bought some kidneys.

I saw an open market where live cattle are sold. Those who could afford to buy a whole cow did so. The cheapest cow here, I was told, goes for about N100,000 or slightly less and the slaughtering fee is N3,000. The place has a sizeable space where meat is sold to buyers who resell in different markets in Lagos. There are also different associations within the abattoir and I was told one must belong to an association before he/she could be allowed to trade. One such association is United Butchers Association.

At different times in the three days I spent at the abattoir, I witnessed the slaughtering of weak, pregnant and dead animals. Sadly, there was no veterinary doctor anywhere close to the slaughter slab to inspect the meat.

The goat section

The goat section is beside the government-owned lairage and shares the same compound with the office of the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) at the abattoir. This section was not as busy as the cattle section when I got there. I saw less than 30 goats all of which have marks on their bodies for easy identification.

A goat here goes for between N16,000 and N29,000 depending on the size. Slaughtering fee for a goat is N2,000.

Harmony Abattoir

This privately-owned abattoir was very quiet but squeaky clean when I walked in. It was as if no slaughtering had taken place in a long while in this modern abattoir with state-of-the-art equipment. The manager was around and I had a long chat with him concerning their activities and the state of the Oko-Oba abattoir in general. He told me the model of the Harmony Abattoir has the capacity to slaughter 2,400 cattle daily but, sadly, they are doing less than 1 percent because of epileptic power supply and low patronage from price-conscious buyers.

“We slaughtered 10 cattle yesterday. We charge N5,000 for slaughtering but the open abattoir charges between N2,000 and N3,000. So, a lot of people prefer to slaughter there to save cost,” he said.

He told me the times have been very challenging for them. For instance, they had a meat retail outlet but along the line, they could not sustain it because of unstable power supply.

“For over three days now we have not had power supply. We had to put on our generating set from morning till night, but can a generator work for 24 hours?” he asked.

“Again, when buyers come here and we give them meat for more than the price they can buy on the streets, they will run to cheaper places to buy. If we have 10 customers, eight will go outside to buy while two will stay,” he said.

The manager explained that meat is not supposed to be kept for so long because by the time it spends a week or two inside the freezer, it loses taste and quality. But unfortunately, consumers are not worried about quality but the price of meat they buy.

“In Nigeria, price comes before safety. If you like package it well, once an ordinary meat vendor passes by, the people will buy from him. They will say the only difference between our meat and the ones on the streets is the polythene bags we use in packaging them. That’s their mentality. Once the customer can save N400 or N500 per kilo of meat and they want to buy as much as 10 kilos, they will go outside to buy. And you won’t blame them, it’s the harsh economic situation,” he said.

“Before we were trading, giving out freezers and even organising trainings but along the line, things went bad. There was poor power supply for the cold-rooms and buyers were not ready to pay for the value of the meat. Now we just concentrate on services alone. People bring in their cows and we slaughter, cut and portion for them. We don’t have our own butchers and we still slaughter in the open slaughter ground but we are always present when the slaughtering is going on,” he said.

“How about the cattle I saw in your lairage? Who owns them?” I asked.

“Some belong to us. Colleagues rear them. If they bring in animals, they can keep them there pending the time they want to slaughter them,” he said.

“One common thing among the open butchers is that most of them are illiterate. If you want to slaughter a cow, you have to follow some protocols, but they are impatient. They want to slaughter the animal and get it over with within two to three minutes, but here we have to observe some protocol. Here, we have to hang the animal and there is a timeline for the machine. There is also division of labour. Everyone here has their own sections, but the open butchers don’t want to hear all those things,” he added.

I asked him about the inspection and certification of meat by the veterinary doctors because I did not see any doctor on the slaughter slab.

“They have very few doctors here so there are meats that are being sold without being inspected. The doctors cannot cover the whole area and there are people slaughtering simultaneously and randomly at different locations,” he said.

“So, the doctors don’t get to inspect the meat you sell?” I asked.

“Once we are working, the doctors come around to inspect. We let them know we are about to slaughter. We have to call them when we are slaughtering. Here, they issue us certificate but they cannot issue it in the open market. How many people do they want to issue the certificate to? You can see the butchers, they don’t want to hear anything once they are working until they finish what they are doing,” he said.

I asked whether all the dead animals were thrown away and he said he could not answer that. Then, as an afterthought, he added that there is a place at the back of the building where dead animals are thrown.

“Once the animal is dead, we have some carriers and we have a pit at the back of this building. If the animal is going to die the following day, it has to be slaughtered immediately to save cost. In developed countries, such animals are not slaughtered but here, the butcher has paid for the animal. Where is he going to get the money from if the animal dies? There is no insurance. Butchers should be insured,” the manager said.

I also inquired about the people sleeping in the lairage and the manager told me that they had been warned several times to desist from that but they had not heeded the warnings.

“They have converted that lairage to their home. The government was on their neck before and even gave them ultimatum but nothing happened afterwards. According to the mallams, anything can happen to their animals at any given time and they don’t want to incur losses. Some diseases can be easily transmitted from the animals to people living there. These mallams cannot stop living inside the lairage until government intervenes. To me, government is not concerned, that’s why everything is like this,” he said.

Corruption is why the meat vans lie idle

The manager said the task force whose duty it is to ensure that the meat vans are used to transport meat are the ones aiding the people to flout the order by collecting money from them.

“So, how are we going to stop this? It will even generate more problems. When the refrigerated meat vans were introduced, the purpose of the van was to ensure that nobody puts anything inside their car or carries it on their head. A month after the van was introduced, things went back to normal. You see people putting meat inside the car and when the task force catches them, they tip the task force and are allowed to walk away,” he said.

“Once you supply meat, you have to get a certificate of consumption from the veterinary doctor. The supplier will take it along with the meat but that does not happen; they bribe their way,” he added.

Nothing is a waste

“Nothing is actually a waste in the value chain of cattle,” a veterinary doctor who had come to see the manager of Harmony Abattoir told me when I asked what the blood of the cattle that was being scooped by the butchers was used for.

“When you take a cow for slaughter, there are many products you can get from just one cow. Apart from the meat, the blood is a source of protein for feed meal. The blood is collected, boiled, dried and blended in such a way that it serves as a source of protein for those that cannot afford fish meal. When you want to compound meal for poultry and pigs, blood meal comes from the cattle,” said the vet doctor, whose identity must not be revealed to avoid victimisation.

“The horns are used for buttons and for decorations. The hide or skin is used in the leather industry for making bags and also consumed as ‘ponmo’. The bones are collected, dried, burnt and used as a source of calcium; it’s called bone meal for animal feed. So, technically, everything you find in a whole cow is useful,” he said.

Process line of cattle

Enlightening me about the process line of cattle, the vet doctor said when animals are transported from Northern Nigeria down to Lagos, they are offloaded from the truck and the healthy ones are moved to the lairage. After that, ante-mortem is carried out by a qualified veterinary doctor to check the physical status of the animal to ascertain whether it is fit for slaughter. Some of the cattle might get tired while in transit as a result of the long journey. If some of them are not well arranged in the truck, they might get trampled on.

According to him, the moment a cow is certified fit for consumption and is slaughtered and opened up, the veterinary doctor checks the internal organs because the animal might look healthy outside but still harbour signs of diseases when the internal organs are checked.

He told me that when they bring in animals, some doctors at the market where they sell the live cattle will inspect them before they are allowed into the market, but even with that, there are loopholes.

I also learnt that when you want to slaughter an animal under an ideal situation, you let the animal rest for at least a day before anything is done. But that is not the case at the Oko-Oba abattoir.

“Once the animals come in from the North and any of them is weak, it is quickly slaughtered so the owner does not run into debt,” he said.

Insufficient veterinary doctors

Before leaving the abattoir on the second day, I decided to pay a visit to the veterinary doctors. I was curious to find out why I did not sight a single one of them throughout my stay at the slaughter ground for two consecutive days. Their office was locked but I hung around for a while until I sighted two of them, a male and a female, emerging from a house opposite their office. They told me they were just coming out from a meeting. I introduced myself as a caterer.

“I was at the slaughter slab and didn’t see any doctor inspecting anything. So, I have come to look for a doctor to help me check the meat before I purchase,” I said.

The female vet doctor turned to her counterpart who was few metres behind her and said in a low tone, “She said there are no doctors on the slaughter slab.” The male doctor looked at me and said nothing.

Turning to face me again, she said, “There are doctors at the slab, although we are not many. Imagine in this whole abattoir, there are only eight of us and then some of us are on duty at Alausa, some are on other assignments. So, those that will be on duty will be either four or five. Imagine five of us among this crowd, you cannot see us. It’s not that we are not there, we are there; it’s just that the manpower is not enough. If you have power, you can tell them to employ more people.”

Her submission is in tandem with what the manager of Harmony Abattoir had told me earlier, that there were between five and seven doctors at the abattoir.

“You don’t expect seven veterinarians to inspect 3,000 cattle slaughtered daily. It’s a 24-hour job because they might slaughter at night, but those are emergency slaughtering done for weak or sick animals. The doctors are not enough,” the manager had said.

After her explanation, the female vet doctor asked what I would want them to do for me.

“I will appreciate it if you can help me inspect a cow I want to buy,” I replied.

“What quantity do you want to buy?” she asked.

“A quarter.”

She turned to the male doctor again and told him what I said, to which he replied, “No problem.”

She then told me, “Anyone you see wearing white, just approach them and ask if they are doctors because some of the butchers wear white. The way they communicate with you, you will know if they are doctors or not.

“I can also teach you a simple tip I usually tell people. If you are buying meat, you look at it and touch it. If it has noodles or a growth that is hard or soft, don’t buy it. Once it has all those boil-like things and you can feel that it’s hard, don’t buy it. Normal meat should not have such. And then, you look at the colour; if it’s fresh, you will know. Then the smell, if it’s off, you will know. Those are the main things. Just look at it and observe these few things, if they are not there, you can buy the meat.”

When she had finished her ‘lecture’, she turned to leave. I thanked her and walked away.

Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Oko-Oba

On the third day, I paid a visit to the Ministry of Agriculture with my findings.

At the ministry, a 10-minute walking distance from the Oko-Oba abattoir, I met a young woman the moment I entered the gate. I introduced myself as a caterer and told her I noticed something I felt was not right at Oko-Oba abattoir and needed to speak to someone about it.

“Let me see if one of the veterinary doctors is around,” she said and walked straight into an office. I followed behind. We met three ladies chatting away and she pointed at one of them and said I could speak with her.

After narrating what I saw at the abattoir that morning, the vet doctor heaved a sigh and, turning to the other ladies, said, “Hmm! I think you people heard what she said.” She then turned to me and said, “Let’s go to our director so she can hear it too.”

As we stepped out, she admitted that the animals were not being examined the way they were supposed to.

“When I came and they said I should go and represent at the abattoir, I said I cannot go there, something that brought me out of MCS because of the atrocity and everything. When I get there again, I will be covering the evil they are doing. I don’t want it,” she said.

She continued talking as we walked through a farm to the director’s office.

“They are not supposed to slaughter dead calf for consumption but they are doing it. If I want to eat meat, I have some people I buy from; those people sell matured meat. You should be looking out for such people but they are not easy to find,” she said.

The vet doctor who had become my guide said she had seen a situation where some people slaughtered a cow that just died claiming there was nothing wrong with it.

“This is Federal Ministry of Agric, Department of Livestock,” she told me. “The state doctors are the ones at the abattoir. Our doctors are not there. Maybe the state doctors have something in common with those people; maybe they are getting something from them, that is why they cannot tell them the real fact. This thing is not proper, it’s a Nigerian case. You are a Nigerian, so you know everything.”

I asked if one could get infected by eating a diseased or dead animal.

“What of the ones you have eaten unknowingly?” she responded. “It’s only God that is saving us in Nigeria.”

When I told her the vet doctor I met at the abattoir said they were only eight there and so taught me how to inspect the meat before purchasing, she said, “How will you even know what you are checking? Even if they are three veterinary doctors at the abattoir, don’t they know the right thing to do? They are not doing the right thing and they cannot do this abroad.”

Meeting the director

When we got to the director’s office, she was busy and asked us to give her a moment. My guide opened one of the offices and brought out a report.

“They normally submit a report to us every month. This is one of the reports. We have just one representative from here at the abattoir,” she said.

The director came in to meet us in the office. I narrated what I saw at the abattoir and she asked me to write a letter detailing my observation. She called another director at the Lagos State Secretariat, Alausa on phone and informed him about my observation and what she had directed me to do.

“Can I get sick from eating the meat of diseased or dead animals?” I asked innocently.

“No no,” the director said emphatically. “You won’t get infected but it’s not good. It’s not ethical to sell such meat to consumers but nothing will happen to you if you eat it.”

“How about pregnant cattle? I thought they are not supposed to be slaughtered but I saw the butchers slaughtering them and selling the foetuses to buyers. Do we eat camels too?” I asked.

“People buy the foetus for their dogs and, yes, we eat camels,” she replied.

As I began to write the letter, she rose to go back to her office. But before then, she said to me, “You are a good Nigerian. May the Almighty God reward you.”

I concluded the letter and handed it to my guide. She thanked me again for reporting what I saw and I took my leave, hoping that the letter ends up in the right hands and that the necessary actions would be taken.

Photo & Video credit: Chinwe Agbeze