Food and Drink: What fresh hell is this?

I have never gone along with the vegetarian view that it is wrong to kill a living creature because you want to eat it, but it seems to me that those of us who do eat meat have a responsibility to see that the animals killed in our name have been slaughtered compassionately, in a manner that we can face up to without flinching. Committed vegetarians regard such a stance as hypocritical: there is no such thing as 'humane slaughter', they tell us. And an experience I had last autumn inclines me to sympathise with their point of view.

The reason I am only now reporting it, is that I have spent the intervening three months engaged in questions, answers and negotiations with one of Britain's largest supermarket chains over its famous French free-range chickens. I have not been reassured by Tesco's response. Over to you to judge.

I had been invited to the Landes forest, in the south-west of France, to see how the birds immortalised by Dudley Moore in the television ads were raised. I had eaten and enjoyed these chickens, and expected to approve of what I saw. They are 'developed to stringent standards, giving consideration to animal welfare, low-input farming and the removal of unnecessary additives', said Tesco.

When the supermarket launched these chickens in 1989, the chain walked into a controversy over the use of coccidiostats - a pre-emptive medication widely used in poultry production - but, all in all, the birds were exceptionally well received. They were then, and continue to be, the nearest thing on the mass-market to chicken one could eat with a good conscience - a massive improvement on the miserable broiler chickens that dominate it. They have the distinction of being the only chickens on offer in British supermarkets that qualify for the strictest European Union standard known as 'Free Range Total Freedom'.

Everything I saw of the way they are reared confirmed that perception. These are birds that live on the soft, sandy forest floor, feeding on locally produced maize. Exercise, a natural diet and slow growth (81 to 84 days as opposed to the standard 37 to 39) mark them out as quite exceptional. If there is a chicken heaven, this must come close. But the same cannot be said of the method of their slaughter.

I went to visit the factory where the birds are processed. Our timetable allowed for us to spend half-an-hour or so looking around the packing area. Being a veteran of many packing areas, I suggested that we might instead make an unscheduled tour of all the factory functions, including the slaughter line, something not included in our schedule. My fellow journalists agreed, and off we went.

I had seen one poultry slaughter line before - at a duck processing company at the same industrial park - and, although it was not a pleasant sight, the whole business was conducted professionally and fast. The birds sat in tightly packed boxes (to prevent them from flapping around), they were then attached by their legs to shackles, which conveyed them into a bath charged with an electric stun current, from where they emerged (looking immobile and distinctly dead) to have their throats cut. Thereafter, the dead birds were transported to scalding tanks for feather removal, and so on, looking utterly lifeless.

At the Fermiers Landais factory, however, things were rather different. The slaughter line was killing guinea fowl, but we were told that this was broadly typical of the Tesco process. Here, a school-gym-length queue of crated birds, stacked to juggernaut height, waited to be attached to a long, slow shackling line. This was bad, but worse was the fact that many of the birds emerged from the stunning bath trying to raise their necks, flapping their wings, moving their eyes. These birds looked distinctly alive.

Next, the same twitching birds went trundling through to have their throats cut manually (although Tesco chickens are in fact cut mechanically), before being left to lie - several still trying to move - on a pile on the floor. I am not particularly squeamish, but what I saw turned my stomach. A few minutes of watching was enough.

I was thoroughly shocked and said so. Not long before, I had received a report from Compassion in World Farming, the animal welfare organisation. Its principal conclusions were that a significant number of chickens on the British market were being slaughtered inhumanely. Because they were not properly stunned, or their necks were not efficiently cut, they were recovering consciousness as they bled to death or entered the scalding tank. Surely this was exactly what we had just seen?

Various technical staff replied through a translator, Pierre Thebaud, a partner in TEC Foods which works on the chicken contract for Tesco. 'What you saw (the attempted head-raising) was only a muscular reaction. The birds may look alive but they are anaesthetised. Any twitching is just a nervous reaction,' he assured us.

So how do you distinguish between nervous reaction and ineffective stunning? 'The stunning current is 50 to 70 volts, which is sufficient to stop cerebral life. The test is that the bird will stay stunned for one minute,' he replied. And why doesn't the current just kill the bird? 'For the bird to bleed properly when its throat is cut, the heart must still be pumping.'

This sort of dialogue between 'experts' and lay people can go on and on. As a constructive conclusion, I suggested that Tesco should send out an independent animal welfare expert to report on the slaughter. On my return, I set the suggestion down in a letter to the supermarket, along with a copy of the CIWF report. My letter was very detailed, raised specific questions, and included a request for details of the stunning current used, in milliamperes (mA), so that I could compare Tesco's standard with other ones. Tesco told me that a representative from the Humane Slaughter Association was flying out and would report.

After a month, I followed up my letter, to be told that Tesco now had a report but, although it would answer specific questions over the phone, the chain was not prepared to show me the whole document. In response to my demand for a written reply, came a short statement from Tesco's technical controller, Vince Craig. 'The report highlighted the need to ensure adequate training on welfare matters for all slaughter staff, the need to minimise pre-stun shocks from water splashes escaping from the stun bath and to reduce the time delay from the stun bath to the actual neck cutting.' He assured me that immediate steps had been taken to deal with all these points, and that the entire report would be used as the basis for a new installation (slaughter line) which would be operational by this March. On the CIWF report, Tesco's reaction was that the policy for its chickens was 'to stun rather than stun to kill'.

Tesco has resisted my further requests to see the report in full, though it did eventually get back with details of its stunning currents - 20mA per bird. This information was telling. Academic experts recommend 120mA - a standard which has been adopted by the European Parliament. Our own Ministry of Agriculture recommends 105mA. So where does this leave Tesco's 20mA?

According to experts at the Meat and Animal Science Department of the University of Bristol, doctors Gregory and Wotton, currents of less than 75mA should never be used. Dr Gregory says that cardiac arrest (death) should be induced at stunning 'to avoid the problems associated with inefficient neck cutting which are all too common in poultry processing'.

CIWF's research director, Peter Stevenson, says that there is scientific consensus that birds should be killed by the stun. 'The idea that the heart should still be beating when the neck is cut is a hoary old chestnut. The research (Gregory and Mohan Raj, 1991) shows that the blood leaving the neck is not reduced by the bird being dead at the time of neck cutting.'

Research from the same source underlines the fact that a minute's induced unconsciousness is not enough, since the time between neck cutting and loss of activity of the brain can take as long as 349 seconds.

Behind all the technical discussion, what is the moral of the story? From the caring consumer's perspective, it is a vivid illustration of how we cannot place absolute faith in even the most persuasive label. People buy these Landes chickens because they think they are better than others, with animal welfare concerns often their principal motivation. And if the Landes chickens conform to stricter standards than most, what is going on behind the scenes of all the British slaughterhouses that churn out broilers - or, for that matter, beef, pork or lamb - for the mass market?

Not that we are likely to find out. Tesco's flat refusal to show me the report it commissioned on my suggestion is typical of the secrecy that shrouds industrial slaughter. In 1992, Ron Davies, MP, asked the Minister of Agriculture what proportion of poultry is stunned with currents intended to induce cardiac arrest. John Gummer replied: 'The information is not available.' Last year, Elliot Morley, MP, asked what proportion of broilers have both carotid arteries severed at slaughter. Once more, this time from Food Minister Nicholas Soames, the answer was that the information was 'not available'.

I can hear all those vegetarians saying, I told you so . . .