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Chicks killed, crushed and trodden on at award-winning hatchery, disturbing video appears to show

Exclusive: Undercover activist claims baby birds destined for chicken meat suffer on fast production line as others ground up alive

Jane Dalton
Friday 29 March 2024 14:58 GMT
Chicks were crushed on the floor and thrown by staff working quickly

Chicks were crushed under trolley wheels, trodden on and injured as they were thrown into crates, an undercover investigator claims.

Secret filming in a hatchery that rears birds for the chicken meat industry also appears to show chicks left injured and sometimes bloodied by accidents.

The first investigation of its kind in a broiler chick hatchery claims to reveal how young birds are treated on production lines.

Chicks are sent to a macerator alive it is claimed (Animal Justice Project)

Those deemed not fit for sale to chicken farms were sent down a chute into a macerator to be ground up alive, it is alleged.

The company, Annyalla, says it produces three million, day-old chicks a week for the broiler – meat – industry. Eggs are incubated for three weeks before chicks hatch, and are then sold to chicken farms.

Annyalla says it is also “accredited” by Tesco and Marks & Spencer, although M&S does not use this individual hatchery.

And the site, in Boston, Lincolnshire, won a “hatchery of the year” award in 2022.

Its website claims it is “fully accredited the British Assured Chicken standard agency” – but there is no such agency. The company said it meant an old government scheme called Assured Chicken Production. There are no records of the scheme’s activities.

An investigator for animal-rights organisation Animal Justice Project, who worked undercover at Annyalla, claimed they saw repeated suffering and filmed violations of animal welfare law including:

  • Staff flung chicks between crates quickly, and some picked up so many chicks at once that they were accidentally dropped
  • Chicks often fell out of egg trays and hatching crates, leaving them injured and without water
  • Some were then run over by trolleys or trodden on
  • Chicks had to poke their heads through gaps for drinking water but were injured or killed when trolleys crashed into other trolleys, the wall or metal barriers
  • They often got their heads stuck in crate gaps
  • Wings, legs and feet also became stuck in crate gaps. In one case chicks started eating the leg of a bird from above
  • Staff who spotted sick or injured chicks left them despite rules that they should be removed immediately
  • Chicks had no access to water for up to eight hours after trolleys were removed from incubators

One chick was filmed with blood coming from a wound in its head, which was hanging down.

Animal Justice Project said that on very busy days, the staff – who handle up to 370,000 baby birds a day – were too hurried to show chicks “reasonable care”.

Any deemed too sick to be sold were sent to be macerated – shredded alive – but some crates were delayed by up to four hours before the chicks were put out of their misery.

Chicks were thrown, rather than placed, in crates, investigators say (Animal Justice Project)

By law, sick and injured birds should be removed quickly.

Male chicks born to egg-laying hens are usually killed with gas, but maceration - with a high-speed blade grinder - is used legally for the millions of broiler chicks born into the meat industry every year that fail to “make the grade”.

France has banned the shredding of male chicks.

A vet visits the site every six weeks on a day when a deep clean is carried out and no chicks are handled, the activists said.

The filming also showed some chicks are hatched with deformities. “I’ve just seen a three-legged chick for the first time,” the investigator told one worker, who replies: “Yeah, we had one not so long ago that had four legs, no beak and just one eye.”

Some chicks hatch deformed or are wounded or die later, it is claimed (Animal Justice Project)

Staff said the company planned to more than double production to around 2.5 million chicks a week, although Animal Justice Project claimed numbers were already too high for proper animal care.

In 2019, the hatchery was given an RSPCA Assured certificate to provide chicks for farms endorsed by the animal-welfare charity’s scheme, but never went on to hatch for it. However, the RSPCA suspended its certificate when The Independent showed it the footage.

It’s understood that after seeing the footage, Tesco contacted the hatchery and launched an urgent investigation into it.

The site handles up to 370,000 baby birds a day (Animal Justice Project)

A spokesperson for Annyalla said the company was regularly audited to ensure high standards, and parts of the footage fell below those expected of employees, adding: “Staff undergo critical training on the handling and welfare of chicks prior to commencing work, and are given continuous regular refresher courses, so it is disappointing to see a minority of our people fall short on this occasion. We have addressed this with the staff involved and have taken further action to ensure this does not happen again.

“Our chicks are our most valuable asset, so we prioritise their welfare at every stage. Chicks must be handled appropriately, are given fresh water and nutrition, and all processes are monitored by senior team members.

“We acknowledge that people can make poor decisions, but we are committed to putting the right measures in place to rectify any issues. Our focus remains on maintaining impeccable standards of bird welfare at all times.”

Birds may be badly injured if their heads poke out at the wrong moment or become caught (Animal Justice Project)

Marks & Spencer said some suppliers sourced chicks from Annyalla, but have never sourced from this particular hatchery.

An M&S spokesperson said: “We do not source from or have links with this hatchery. We set rigorous animal welfare for all suppliers and expect these to be upheld at all times.”

An RSPCA Assured spokesperson said it was totally unacceptable for chicks to be treated in this way.

They added: “This site has never hatched chicks for RSPCA Assured certified farms. Chicks hatched for RSPCA Assured farms can only be slower-growing breeds, and are not the faster-growing breeds shown in this footage.

“Animal welfare is our sole priority, as such we have reported the farm to the Animal and Plant Health Agency, who are fully equipped to carry out independent investigations into animal welfare concerns.”

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