Supermarkets ‘misled customers over chicken cruelty and shut down social media objections’

Exclusive: Morrisons blocked Facebook comments as Chris Packham challenges chain to let him film ‘hellish’ lives of birds

Jane Dalton
Sunday 02 May 2021 23:16
Vets conclude that supermarket chickens are bred to suffer

Supermarkets misled customers over the “cruel” conditions their chickens are reared in and shut down social media comments on the birds’ welfare, according to campaigners.

Morrisons is said to have blocked emails from activists to its chief executive, while Co-op staff reportedly told callers – wrongly – that all the chain’s chicken was free-range.

An Asda worker even claimed that a petition launched by Chris Packham and backed by the RSPCA was a “scam”.

The television naturalist has now challenged Morrisons to let him film inside a standard shed to reveal the “hellish” lives of chickens, warning they are subjected to “extreme suffering”.

In a letter seen by The Independent, sent on Friday, Packham writes: “It shocks me to see an iconic British name like Morrisons appearing to have such little regard for animal welfare.”

Last month, the television presenter launched his petition calling on supermarkets to “stop selling suffering” and adopt the Better Chicken Commitment, a promise of higher welfare standards.

It was organised with the Humane League UK, Open Cages, Animal Equality UK and the RSPCA.

The animal-welfare organisations promoted the petition online, and staff and volunteers rang supermarket customer services teams to ask about their chicken welfare, allegedly receiving a range of false responses.

Some callers even reported that supermarket staff hung up on them.

Out of 12 calls to the Co-op, in eight cases, employees claimed all their chicken was free-range or cruelty-free, or met the Better Chicken Commitment.

The Co-op’s website says all its chicken is British and meets Red Tractor standards, but does not claim it is free-range.

An Asda representative wrongly told a supporter that Packham’s petition was a “scam”.

Morrisons removed the facility to comment from its Facebook page, restricted Twitter comments and blocked emails to its chief executive, the campaigners said, when supporters started pressuring the supermarket.

The Humane League said: “Instead of engaging meaningfully with these comments, Morrisons completely disabled comments on their main Facebook page and deleted all comments on their Morrisons Jobs page. They took down their Morrisons Market Kitchen Facebook page, which is now back up.

“They restricted comments on their main Twitter account, and they disabled comments on their main Instagram account.”

Activists recalled that in 2015, when chief executive David Potts joined, he said: “My goal will be to listen as hard as possible to as many customers and staff as I can.”

In at least 39 cases, the supermarket’s staff declined to give information on how their chickens were raised.

Springwatch host Packham said: “This is a blatant attempt to silence valid criticism from genuine customers about Morrisons’ insufficient animal welfare policies. Morrisons has a duty of care to chickens and to customers – what does it say about them when they’re shutting down comments?"

Hannah Yates of the Humane League said some of the supermarket responses were “pretty outrageous”, adding: “We understand customer service reps aren’t at fault here but headquarters have a responsibility to ensure they are disseminating correct information.”

In his letter to Mr Potts, Packham wrote: “The use of rapidly growing Frankenchickens and the overcrowded conditions they’re reared in inherently causes extreme suffering to these birds. I have been shown an exposé of your supplier companies which I found very distressing to watch.”

The situations the chickens live and die in are “hellish”, he said.

“It shocks me to see an iconic British name like Morrisons appearing to have such little regard for animal welfare. Unfortunately to date your company has ignored the calls from scientists and animal advocacy NGOs urging you to sign up to the Better Chicken Commitment to address this cruelty.”

Packham asked to film, unannounced, inside a supplier shed to document the lives and deaths of the supermarket’s chickens.

“I think that we consumers have a right to know how these animals really live,” he wrote.

Birds dubbed “Frankenchickens” by animal-rights organisations are bred to grow exceptionally rapidly for maximum weight, so that their brittle legs and organs cannot cope, leaving them suffering broken bones and even heart attacks.

The Better Chicken Commitment involves not using the fastest growing breeds and not having overcrowded conditions.

A Co-op spokesperson said: “As a leading ethical retailer, looking after the animals in our care and overall animal welfare is a priority for us, our customers and members. All our fresh chicken is in line with, or exceeds, industry and government-approved standards, and we also have our own strict welfare policies in place which are monitored through the Co-op’s own dedicated chicken farming group.

“Our free-range chicken meets the Better Chicken Commitment standard, and we are committed to reviewing these ranges to meet the needs of our shoppers.”

The customer call centre had been reminded of the company’s official response on animal welfare, the chain said.

An Asda spokesperson said: “We’re always focused on providing customers with great quality products at prices to suit all budgets. This is why we offer a range of fresh 100 per cent British chicken reared to recognised industry standards like Red Tractor and RSPCA Assured, as well as organic and free-range choices.

“To make higher welfare chicken more affordable for our customers we are also making a significant price investment in our standard free-range tier. This investment will be supported by point of sale materials and prominent on-pack labelling so customers can make an informed choice about what they are buying.”

The Independent also asked Morrisons to respond but had not heard back before publication.

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