Hens found suffering at free-range RSPCA-backed egg farms supplying M&S and Tesco, activists say

Exclusive: Birds denied access to outdoors for four days running at one place, with exit holes sealed, say campaigners

Jane Dalton
Thursday 09 May 2024 20:55
Activists filmed at one supplier for M&S, and at another supplier for the Happy Egg Company

Marks & Spencer has suspended a free-range egg farm as a supplier after seeing footage there of a living hen hanging upside down, as well as sick hens alongside living ones.

It was one of four free-range farms that had RSPCA endorsement where animal welfare advocates filmed inside. Together, the four sold eggs to Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Asda, as well as the Happy Egg Company.

The activists said they saw “appalling” conditions with suffering and dying birds.

Activists claims to have seen ‘appalling’ conditions (Animal Justice Project)

Each farm had sick, dying and dead hens alongside living ones, according to the activists – but they warned that the scenes were “a distressing norm in the free-range egg industry”.

Animal rights charity Animal Justice Project (AJP), which shot footage at the farms between December and February, said its investigation laid bare claims of high welfare as a facade. The RSPCA suspended another of the four after seeing the footage.

The most shocking discovery, according to AJP, was a hen hanging upside down on Home Farm in Lincolnshire, which was an A-listed supplier for M&S via egg company Bumble Hole Foods.

“She was struggling to free herself from a hazardous slatted system, with other birds already dead and hanging off tiers,” an AJP spokesperson said.

A hen was found caught by a wing and hanging upside down (Animal Justice Project)

“The situation was exacerbated by insanitary conditions throughout the farm. In the packing room rat poison had been ‘haphazardly scattered’ and a dead mouse lay among the filth.”

Home Farm cancelled its RSPCA Assured membership in February, although filming had taken place two months earlier.

Bumble Hole Foods says it sources eggs from farms accredited for their hygiene standards and chicken welfare.

The witness said they also saw distressed animals with splayed legs, birds with bad feather loss, decomposing bodies and overcrowded nesting areas.

M&S suspended the farm when The Independent showed the chain the footage.

The other three farms still had RSPCA Assured endorsement when filming took place, but on seeing the footage, the charity suspended Ratford Farm in Wales, where the activist saw “run-down facilities and instances of neglect”.

‘Free-range’ birds fill racks at Glenrath Farm, Scotland (Animal Justice Project)

In sheds that housed more than 14,000 birds, one hen was filmed with an apparently twisted neck, dead hens were filmed on the floor, and one hen had severe diarrhoea, it was claimed.

Conditions were also “disturbing”, it’s claimed, at Glenrath Farms in Scotland, owned by an “egg dynasty” and one of the UK’s largest producers of free-range eggs that produces more than a million eggs daily for Tesco and Asda.

Animal Justice Project said it saw “sick hens in filthy conditions showing signs of severe distress” such as twisted beaks, swollen feet and panting.

“The stench of ammonia filled the air, and numerous deceased hens were scattered throughout the premises – in one area, seven lifeless birds lay together, their necks seemingly broken before they were discarded,” the spokesperson said.

Many hens had lost feathers (Animal Justice Project )

“Central nesting areas were deliberately blocked off, depriving hens of essential spaces to rest and lay eggs, and ‘enrichment’ efforts, represented by plastic bucket lids and mesh scraps, remained untouched.

“During each visit in February, drone footage showed the birds were denied access to the outdoors for four consecutive days, with ‘pop holes’ sealed shut.”

Over half of the respondents in a YouGov poll for Animal Justice Project said they believed free-range hens had daily access to outdoors.

In 2022, a director of Glenrath Farms won an award from the Poultry Club of Scotland.

Hens were not seen being let outdoors for four days in a row, it was claimed (Animal Justice Project)

At a Tesco-supplying farm in the East Midlands, which provides eggs for The Happy Egg Co, a brand synonymous with “ethical” egg production, Animal Justice Project said it documented cases of severe prolapses, wings that looked broken, and widespread feather loss.

Dying and decaying birds were allegedly seen on shed floors.

Sean Barrs, an Animal Justice Project campaigner, said: “Today’s modern egg industry in Britain unveils a heartbreaking truth: sick, dying, and live hanging egg-laying hens, crammed by the thousands into huge, factory-style sheds designed for maximum production.

“Even RSPCA Assured certification fails to shield these birds from suffering, despite the organisation’s mission claiming to advocate for ‘every kind of animal’.”

One bird at Glenrath appeared to have a yeast infection (Animal Justice Project)

An M&S spokesperson said: “The footage shows unacceptable levels of welfare which fall well below the rigorous standards we set for all our suppliers. We have immediately suspended the farm [Home Farm in Lincolnshire] from our supply chain while we urgently investigate with RSPCA Assured.”

A Glenrath spokesperson said bird welfare was a priority, adding: “We’re disappointed animal activists chose to break into our farm, causing a significant biosecurity and disease risk. It is a criminal offence to break into a secure property.

“It looks as though the activists were in the shed whilst the birds were resting, which would cause them to become upset and distressed. When birds are resting nest boxes are routinely closed.

“Whilst a misshapen beak is unfortunate and the industry makes great efforts to ensure accurate beak trimming, occasionally some birds do still have misaligned beaks.” There was no indication birds were struggling to feed or drink, they said.

‘Free-range’ hens in Lincolnshire (Animal Justice Project)

Questioning whether birds became lame or died because of intruders, they said a vet who inspected the hens detected no welfare issues.

But the investigators said they did nothing illegal, having got in through an unlocked door and a damaged “pop hole” – which they said they filmed.

They also put on coveralls and booties so posed no biosecurity risk, which was also videoed, AJP said.

An RSPCA Assured spokesperson said: “This footage is very distressing to watch and we launched an investigation as soon as we were made aware of it.

“As part of that investigation, RSPCA Assured assessors have made unannounced inspections of the three farms that are members of the RSPCA Assured scheme. We’ve also analysed the footage to identify any breaches of the RSPCA welfare standards.

“We can confirm that we have suspended one of the farms, pending further investigation. This means they cannot market or sell any products under the RSPCA Assured label. Our investigation into the other two farms is ongoing and we are unable to comment further at this time.

“A fourth farm shown in the footage cancelled its membership in February, so we are unable to investigate.

“Sadly, from time to time things can go wrong on farms, but one case of poor welfare is still one too many, which is why we have taken these allegations very seriously.”

Asda aligned itself with the response of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents all supermarkets. Andrew Opie, of the BRC, said members worked closely with trusted suppliers to ensure high welfare standards were upheld. “They have strict processes in place and will thoroughly investigate evidence of welfare breaches,” he said.

The Independent asked Tesco to comment but did not receive a reply.

A spokesperson for Noble Foods, which owns The Happy Egg Company, said: “At The Happy Egg Co, the care and wellbeing of all our hens is a top priority and our agricultural team runs a robust schedule of regular farm visits, which includes spot checks from third parties to ensure they meet our stringent welfare standards.

“As soon as we were shown this footage featuring one of our farms, we launched an immediate review. Our team assessed the farm, and the RSPCA carried out an independent and unannounced assessment on Monday 29 April, where the farm was found to be fully compliant with industry regulations and best practices. The RSPCA had previously visited the farm only two weeks prior and has found no cause for concern at either visit.”

The British Free Range Egg Producer Association was asked to comment on behalf of Ratford Farm, as well as Home Farm, which also did not respond to requests to comment. Nor did Bumble Hole Foods respond to requests to comment.

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