Hens that were “miserable, bleeding, decomposing or dead” have been found at three suppliers to one of the UK’s largest free-range egg brands.
Activists complained to the UK’s advertising watchdog that the Happy Egg Company was “misleading consumers” in showing photographs of birds in lush, tree-filled pastures.
Animal-rights group Peta says that instead, an investigator who visited three farms found thousands of hens packed into sheds so overcrowded that birds pecked one another through stress.
Video footage shows some hens nearly bald or left with bloody wounds, thought to be caused by aggressive behaviour brought on by frustration.
The activists said some of the company’s “happy hens” had died and their corpses were left to rot among the living, and that some sheds were “piled high with faeces”.
The company, though, says that rigorous inspections after the footage was taken showed that welfare standards were being met.
The Peta investigator looked at “free-range” egg farms, in Cumbria, Gloucestershire and Hereford, which supply eggs to the Happy Egg Company.
All three farms were endorsed by RSPCA Assured, a scheme which guarantees welfare. When Peta alerted it to the findings, the charity says it investigated, suspended the farms and lifted the suspensions when it was satisfied the birds were well cared for.
According to Peta, the hens filmed had access to the outdoors, but the area was a barren dirt space, which chickens, being prey animals, find threatening, so they mostly stayed in the crowded sheds or huddled near the entrance. Hens often naturally flock together, especially at night, for warmth and protection.
But experts say they should have access to outdoors greenery, trees, natural shade and dust, in which they can bathe, scratch, roost and forage for food – meeting their natural needs.
Andrew Knight, University of Winchester veterinary professor of animal welfare, said: “The footage shows chickens packed into industrial sheds with very little enrichment.
“Despite evidence that the chickens’ beaks have been trimmed, it appears that feather pecking – suggestive of stress and frustration – is still going on. It’s hard to imagine these chickens are happy.”
Although Happy Egg Company’s website shows images of hens with intact beaks, the activists said many had had their beaks trimmed. This is done routinely on UK egg farms to prevent feather-pecking.
“Happy Egg Co is leading well-intentioned consumers into paying a premium for eggs produced by hens who they are told are ‘happy’, but the chickens we saw face much the same filth, misery and death as those on any other egg factory farm,” said Kate Werner, of Peta.
She said that cramming animals together on overcrowded, faeces-ridden factory farms also created breeding grounds for deadly pathogens such as the novel coronavirus and bird flu.
In the past six months, there have been 20 cases of bird flu – the UK’s largest ever outbreak – leading to the early culling of tens of thousands of birds.
Peta says the free-range sheds contain up to nine birds per square metre.
Ms Werner said of the egg production industry generally: “When the birds’ worn-out bodies can no longer produce enough eggs to be profitable, they’re sent to slaughter, often to be turned into ‘low-grade’ meat because their flesh is so bruised and battered.”
A spokesperson for Noble Foods, which owns the Happy Egg Company, said: “Maintaining the highest animal-welfare standards is extremely important to us, and we took immediate action when we were made aware of the existence of the video by the RSPCA after they were approached by Peta.
“We routinely audit farms to ensure that they conform to all UK industry standards, and we conducted additional inspections as a result of the video.
“Each of the farms also underwent independent, rigorous inspection by the RSPCA and all have been cleared, having the compulsory standards in place. Nothing is more important to us than the safe and proper care of our hens.”
The RSPCA said it immediately suspended the three farms from its Assured scheme, but after “rigorous, physical inspections” it could not justify two of the suspensions, and reinstated them the next day.
After a two-week investigation of the third farm, the charity was satisfied it had rectified the issues, and reinstated it.
An RPSCA spokeswoman said: “We are really saddened by some of the footage taken by Peta. There is no excuse for poor welfare.
“While the footage is very upsetting, following our recent visits we can reassure people that the birds on all three farms are being properly cared for to RSPCA welfare standards. However, as an extra precaution, they will be subject to additional unannounced visits over the coming months.
“We firmly believe it’s far better for us to work with producers to mend their ways and improve standards, where possible, than to walk away and risk those animals being farmed in lower conditions.”
Before the RSPCA had approved welfare standards at the farms, Peta asked the Advertising Standards Authority to “hold Happy Egg Company accountable for misleading consumers”. It is still awaiting the outcome.
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