Workers on chicken farms supplying Nando’s, Asda and Lidl have been filmed leaving a bird convulsing after breaking its neck, stepping on the animals necks and throwing sick ones onto piles, footage from an animal rights group shows.
In grisly video taken by secret cameras, dead birds appeared to be left among the living, leading to cannibalism, while workers stepped on and kicked flocks in sheds.
Some suffered red, raw skin from feather loss and many were collapsed under their own weight, another video showed.
The “harrowing scenes of painful abuse” were shot in two separate investigations at farms run by one of the UK’s largest food businesses and endorsed by the Red Tractor scheme.
The company supplies the supermarkets and Nando’s restaurants with whole chickens and chicken products including ready meals and sliced meat.
Dozens of birds are seen in the film collapsed under the weight of their bodies, many flapping frantically in a desperate attempt to lift themselves up. The RSPCA said the condition results from chickens being selectively bred to put on weight unnaturally rapidly.
The videos appearing to show the workers kicking and stepping on birds were shot by animal-protection group Animal Equality in Northamptonshire between January and March after a tip-off about poor conditions.
The group said that after finding bin bags full of dead birds at one farm, the investigators installed a hidden camera.
The footage seems to show workers not only leaving dead or dying chickens convulsing, but also throwing any live ones unfit for the slaughterhouse onto a pile, where they were apparently left suffering for hours, unable to stand up, frantically flapping, the organisation said.
Weeks later, investigators from another group, Surge, said they saw birds with injuries, leg deformities and unnaturally large bodies, and numerous dead birds that appeared to have been left for longer than a day.
“There are also signs of injury, with one showing a large wound,” a spokesman said.
The farms, Evenley, Pimlico and Helmdon, all rear chickens for Avara Foods, which says it is the UK’s sole supplier of chicken, turkey and duck, producing 4.5 million a week.
Animal Equality’s UK director, Toni Vernelli, said: “Headlines about American chlorinated chicken would have us believe British birds live a life of luxury but these harrowing scenes reveal the truth.
“Bred to grow so unnaturally large that their joints and hearts can’t cope, chickens on British farms suffer every minute of their lives.”
The group passed the footage to the RSPCA, Red Tractor and the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).
Red Tractor labels require that operators check sheds at least once a day and remove any dead animals as soon as possible.
Dr Vernelli said chickens seen convulsing were likely to be dead but it was not certain, and the convulsions would have alarmed the flock. Breaking birds’ necks is a recommended way to kill any that are sick before going for slaughter, but she said birds that were lame and suffering should have been put out of their misery earlier.
In December The Independent revealed crippled turkeys were found at a factory farm in Lincolnshire supplying Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, run by the Faccenda Group, part of Avara.
Research from the RSPCA says supermarkets actively encourage consumers to buy chickens that have suffered in industrial-style systems.
A Red Tractor spokeswoman said: “Animal health and welfare is at the heart of Red Tractor standards. As soon as we were made aware of alleged breaches to our standards, we launched an immediate, independent investigation.
“Red Tractor has conducted on-farm spot-checks. The Animal and Plant Health Agency also inspected the farms and no major issues were found.
“The footage highlighted some issues in terms of Red Tractor standards and we required all personnel involved with the three farms to undergo additional training including the prompt identification of sick birds, bird euthanasia and behaviour around catching. This training has now been completed and verified by a vet.
“The farms are now subject to a strict programme of unannounced inspections.”
Avara Foods gave The Independent a statement saying: “We take our responsibilities for the birds in our care very seriously, and their health and welfare is of the utmost importance.
“We have closely examined the contents of this report to assess compliance against our procedures. Initial findings indicate that, for the farm involved, our requirement to remove any culled or fallen birds as soon as they are identified has not been followed.
“We will take all necessary action to ensure that this situation does not recur. Anyone found not meeting our standards will be subjected to comprehensive retraining and further steps taken if appropriate.”
A Nando’s spokesperson said: “We expect all our suppliers to operate to high standards and we are disappointed. We will be working closely with the supplier to get to the bottom of these allegations, ensuring immediate actions are taken to bring all their sites up to standard.”
“Any breaches to animal welfare are totally unacceptable and should be investigated immediately, with swift action taken to rectify any issues.”
An Asda spokesman said: “We take animal welfare extremely seriously and are investigating with our suppliers,” and referred to the BRC statement.
A spokesperson for the RSPCA, which has prosecution powers, said: “We shared the concerns raised about welfare and our inspectors visited. There were problems with some of the birds’ legs in the footage but staff produced evidence that they had been under the care of a vet and had been receiving appropriate treatment.
“However, we have real concerns about the realities of intensive farming practices which see fast-growing birds bred to provide maximum meat in a short space of time, which can cause severe health problems and lead to suffering.”
An APHA spokesperson said: The local authority, as the appropriate enforcement agency, may initiate prosecution action for welfare offences. We do not comment on individual cases.”.
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