'Disgrace' of UK's factory chicken farms

What are we eating? - Campaigners and supermarkets at odds over welfare standards
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All but one of Britain's main supermarket chains are ignoring Government guidelines for the breeding of chickens used in their products, according to an RSPCA survey.

The survey found that Asda, Safeway, Tesco, Waitrose, the Co-op and fast food chain McDonald's insist that their so-called "broiler" chicken products comply with the Assured Chicken Producers standard for the industry. But this still allows the birds to be intensively farmed in sheds at a density of up to 19 per sq.m. (11 sq.ft.).

Meanwhile, Elliot Morley, the animal health minister, is to push for an EU directive to impose tougher standards on chicken "factory farms" and will raise the issue next month with his EU counterparts. He told the IoS: "We are determined to get a new directive to improve conditions for chickens throughout Europe."

The UK survey found that, of the companies questioned, only Marks & Spencer met the Government's guidelines, which recommend a maximum density of 17 chickens per sq.m. Iceland said it required the ACP standard and carried out audits. Sainsbury's required ACP standards and refused to accept poultry given repeated therapeutic veterinary medicines without investigation. Kentucky Fried Chicken refused to fill in the questionnaire.

Despite generally failing to comply with Government recommendations, many of the companies questioned do offer some poultry raised to higher standards, whether organically, as free range or using the RSPCA's own "freedom" system.

The RSPCA is demanding that the breeding limit be reduced to around 15 birds per sq.m. One of the authors of the report, Caroline Le Sueur, said: "We want to see pressure put on the supermarkets to change the practices on farms."

UK ministers are to press the EU to speed up the introduction of what will be the first regulations to clamp down on conditions across the Continent. They argue that broiler chickens are the one major area of intensive livestock production not so far covered by the programme of EU animal welfare standards.

The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is also going ahead with a study into how broilers go lame when they are only a few weeks old because their bodies grow too big for their legs, and they have no room to exercise.

The European Commission has confirmed that it will table a directive, acting on last year's report which recommended the "stocking density" in broiler sheds should be reduced to a maximum of 30kg, or 65lb, per sq.m. – 8kg less than is the norm in Britain. But pressure group Compassion in World Farming wants the UK to go further. Director Peter Stevensonsaid: "It's a disgrace that we have this huge industry that, in welfare terms, is under-regulated. I would like to see the minister both push for swift action in Brussels and lead the way over here, if possible by introducing our own legislation first."

An estimated 99 per cent of the 800 million chickens slaughtered each year in Britain for their meat are "factory-farmed", in densities of 40,000 per shed and 18-19 per sq.m. In contrast, 30 per cent of those bred in France are free range.

British broilers are selectively bred to a weight of 2-2.5kg in just 41 days, by effectively being force-fed on high-energy cereal grains. Back in the early 1960s, when the post-war intensive farming boom was still in its infancy, it took 84 days for such chickens to reach the same weight.