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Cheap supermarket chicken risking ‘catastrophic’ new pandemics, report warns

Exclusive: Bird flu viruses more frequent than ever, and a highly infectious one 'would make Covid-19 look mild’

Jane Dalton
Monday 09 November 2020 14:47 GMT
Most chickens are bred to grow excessively rapidly, leaving them with low immunity
Most chickens are bred to grow excessively rapidly, leaving them with low immunity (Open Cages)

Intensively reared chicken for meat from supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury and the Co-op is creating an ideal environment for new pandemic viruses to emerge, a report warns.

The “cocktail” of infections to which birds are subjected creates a near-perfect breeding ground for a disease outbreak of pandemic potential, according to the document.

And a new bird flu virus with “high transmissibility” would make Covid-19 appear mild, the authors warn.

The report claims supermarkets are primarily responsible for this “cruel and dangerous” system, because to keep prices low, they reportedly buy chicken from farms with overcrowded conditions that mean disease can spread easily.

They also allegedly use breeds engineered to grow unnaturally rapidly, known as “frankenchickens”, that are “practically unable to ward off infection when it strikes” because their immune systems are so weak.

The scientists behind the report, A British Pandemic: The Cruelty and Danger of Supermarket Chicken, cite scientific literature to argue that such cheap chicken is leading to a “catastrophic” fresh pandemic.  

Nearly a billion broiler (meat) chickens a year are reared in the UK, making it the country’s most-farmed land creature.

Animal-welfare groups have previously said most chickens in UK farming are selectively bred so that they grow to the equivalent of a human baby weighing 28st at just three years old.

The report, prepared for the animal charity Open Cages, says its warning is far from a doomsday scenario, stating: “Bird flu was once a very rare disease among chickens, but today there are outbreaks occurring every year.”  

Scientists have previously said new diseases with the potential to become pandemics have become four times as frequent in the past half-century. In 2007 the World Health Organisation warned that infectious diseases were emerging at unprecedented rates.

One strain of bird flu, H7N9, has caused 1,568 cases in humans and 616 deaths worldwide since 2013, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

In the first three months of this year alone, 16 cases of bird flu were confirmed in the UK.

“A bird flu pandemic on the scale of Covid-19 would be devastating, not only in taking lives but also in disrupting the economy to a life-altering degree,” the report warns. The 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 50 million people, was thought to have originated in birds.

“Alarmingly, it has even been suggested that if the H7N9 virus achieves sustained human-to-human transmission, it ‘could well be worse, perhaps far worse than the Great Pandemic of 1918’,” scientists warned earlier this year.

The authors – neurology professor David Wiebers and vet professor Andrew Knight – say humans come into contact with a “vast amount” of biological matter in chicken farming, such as bodily fluids, and bird viruses are present in air samples up to 110 miles from infected farms, the report says - but procedures to tackle this do not address the root causes of disease.  

Overcrowding allows viruses to spread rapidly (Open Cages)

Of UK supermarkets, only Waitrose and Marks & Spencer have signed the “Better Chicken Commitment” promising higher welfare by 2026.

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said the chain was the UK’s biggest retailer of RSPCA Assured products. “While we share the commitment to improving animal welfare practices the Better Chicken Commitment is trying to achieve, we believe a different approach is more effective. The way we work with our farmers has been different for years.  

“We’ve created a cycle of measuring, managing and continuously improving the health and welfare of our animals, and we believe the results speak for themselves.”

A Co-op spokesperson said the chain’s own-brand chicken is “reared to the high standards of the Red Tractor farm assurance scheme”, and its premium chickens meet RSPCA Assured standards.  

“We also have our own strict welfare standards which are monitored through the Co-op’s dedicated chicken farming group. We constantly review how we source products and are reviewing the implications of the European Chicken Commitment for our supply chains.”

A Tesco spokesperson said: “Our Finest, organic and new RSPCA assured room to roam ranges meet or exceed every aim of the Better Chicken Commitment.” She added their chicken meets or exceeds government-approved welfare and Red Tractor standards.

“We have rigorous biosecurity measures in place to reduce the risk of disease among our poultry which include defined biosecure areas for farm and shed entry, foot dips to all areas where birds are housed, and disinfection of vehicle wheels and equipment.”

Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers expect their suppliers to adhere to all legal requirements and, if applicable, additional standards such as the Red Tractor assurance scheme which requires lower stocking densities than the legal minimum. They take their responsibilities to animal welfare very seriously.”  

Lidl and Aldi referred The Independent to the BRC statement.

The Independent had not heard back from Asda or Morrisons by the time of publication.  

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