Chicken breeding methods in Britain inflict a life of misery on millions of birds which is tolerated by the Government but breaks international law, the High Court was told yesterday.
Animal welfare campaigners said the intensive rearing of 800 million broiler chickens, which allegedly leaves millions of birds unable to support their weight, was the "biggest scandal in farming". Broiler chickens are bred for their meat. A judge was told that the British chicken industry, worth £2.9bn a year, uses specially selected breeds that grow so fast that their legs, heart and lungs often fail to keep pace, causing suffering and death.
International farm animal welfare group, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), claimed modern broilers were bred to reach their slaughter weight in 41 days, twice as fast as 30 years ago. Lawyers for the group said the methods were permitted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), despite the fact that they breach European Union directives on animal welfare.
Rabinder Singh QC, for CIWF, told Mr Justice Newman: "The evidence shows that while broilers' muscle - the meat for which they are to be killed - grows rapidly, the supporting structure of legs, heart and lungs fails to keep pace with rapid body growth, and can be damaged by the strain of supporting overgrown bodies. As a result, each year in Britain, a very large number of broilers suffer painful, sometimes crippling, leg disorders. Millions die every year from heart failure."
In an unusual legal move, CIWF is seeking a judicial review to force the Government to outlaw current rearing practices and force breeders to introduce slower growing birds into the production cycle.
Defra is contesting the case. A spokesman said: "The Government ... believes that the relevant EU animal welfare directive has been implemented correctly."
Britain produces about 740,000 tons of chicken a year, and, across the EU, some four billion broilers are raised. After years of breeding research, flocks reared in vast sheds now reach the slaughter weight of 2kg within six weeks, making intensively-reared chicken the fastest produced of all meats.
CIWF said scientific evidence showed up to 30 per cent of chickens suffered leg abnormalities which left them unable to walk or having to use their wings to support their weight. The overall mortality rate of 4.7 per cent meant about 40 million birds were dying every year from causes such as heart and lung failure.
CIWF told the court that the accelerated growth of broilers had led to a second category of bird, kept for breeding, being "starved" to ensure it lived long enough to reach sexual maturity. The breeding population, accounting for about seven million chickens in Britain, was fed a restricted diet of 25 to 50 per cent of that given to normal broilers to avoid excessive weight gain. As a result, the birds, which live for up to 70 weeks, were found by a European Commission study to be "chronically hungry, frustrated and stressed".
Under a 1998 EU directive, all farm animals must be given enough food to ensure they are kept in good health. CIWF claims the restricted feeding regimes breach those rules and is calling for Defra to prosecute farmers using such diets.
Peter Stevenson, CIWF's political and legal director, said the whole industry was built on unlawful practice."It is the biggest scandal in farming, we have millions of birds which are suffering."
A judgment on the case is expected to be delivered by the end of November.