Turkeys ‘kicked hundreds of times and left wounded at farms supplying Sainsbury’s and Asda’

Exclusive: One man suspended and official investigation launched after witnesses said birds suffered bloody injuries from overcrowding

Jane Dalton
Saturday 19 December 2020 23:41 GMT
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Turkeys were seen with wounds caused by being pecked from frustration said to be caused by overcrowding

Undercover activists at a farm supplying Sainsbury’s and Asda have said they saw workers kicking turkeys more than 200 times in “shocking scenes of suffering and cruelty”.  

A worker is to be suspended and an official investigation has been launched after footage showed what campaigners called “a total disregard for animal welfare”. Birds at the Red Tractor-endorsed intensive farm were also suffering painful open wounds and acute pecking injuries, video from the investigation shows.

Some turkeys suffered broken wings, and others had their wings “painfully caught in crates” as they were “carelessly trapped” while being loaded to be taken for slaughter at the farm, it was claimed.

Animal-welfare charity Viva carried out a secret probe from late last month until earlier this week at three farms – one in Norfolk and two in Gloucestershire. The group said its investigators found at all three:  

  • severely overcrowded sheds, creating stress, aggression and pecking of others;
  • birds suffering with acute injuries from being pecked;
  • high levels of ammonia on the ground, causing “agonising” hock burns, and breathing and walking problems.

At a Gloucestershire-based farm that produces birds for Avara Foods, which supplies many of the UK’s supermarkets and restaurants, workers were seen “brutally kicking helpless birds”. Investigators said the footage showed birds being kicked “more than 218 times” while being herded. 

Avara says online that it looks after “the health, welfare and safety” of its staff, consumers and animals.

But the animal-welfare group said its hidden cameras revealed birds in barren, windowless sheds, subjected for more than three months to continuous artificial lighting with no darkness, which should last at least eight hours. “Cameras filmed for three days straight and the only time the lights were turned off was during the catching process to keep them calm during stressful loading,” a Viva spokesperson said.

At the same unit, turkeys were found with broken wings and one had a “gruesome” protruding wing-bone injury. This would have been difficult to miss in a welfare check but appeared to have gone untreated, according to the observers.  

They also claimed that a worker made just one welfare check a day, in breach of Red Tractor rules, which state that inspections should be carried out at least twice daily.  

Footage documented many birds being “carelessly trapped”, with their wings caught in transport crates, and workers repeatedly failing to free them, “causing unnecessary suffering”.

Red Tractor guidelines say staff must ensure that no part of the bird is trapped by crates.

The video suggested the sheds were overcrowded, in breach of government standards that state turkeys should have enough room to spread their wings.  

The government Animal and Plant Health Agency has launched an investigation into the findings.

Two million turkeys are killed for Christmas dinners in the UK each year, according to animal-rights group Peta.

At the farm in Norfolk where more than 40,000 birds are reared by Green Label Poultry, linked to Gressingham Foods, activists said they also saw turkeys with open wounds. In some cases, they claimed, the turkeys’ skin had been plucked raw and wounds left to fester.

Poultry are often injured by pecking from other birds stressed by overcrowding and a lack of environmental enrichment, critics say.  

At a third farm, also in Gloucestershire and supplying Avara, birds were so overweight they struggled to stand after falling over, so could not get to the water and food supplies, the investigators said.  

In addition, turkeys were said to be suffering “breathing problems, as well as deformed legs and feet”, issues commonly found in intensive farms because birds have to stand in their own waste.

Injured turkeys at this farm were shot in the head and their bodies were photographed and dumped.

It has frequently been documented that when poultry are bred to grow unnaturally rapidly in intensive systems, they suffer leg disorders, joint degeneration and heart disease as their organs and limbs cannot cope with the excessive weight.  

“At all farms, investigators found a concerning number of birds suffering from disturbing injuries, probably due to a lack of appropriate environmental enrichment,” said Viva. 

“Turkeys are naturally inquisitive and explore their environment and investigate new objects by pecking. However, dying birds were found with devastatingly bloody wounds caused by other birds pecking out their feathers.  

“These conditions are in contradiction to Avara Foods’ animal-welfare policy which claims, ‘Our birds would rather peck at the drinkers, feeders, or other pecking objects than each other.’”

Viva also said the cramped, insanitary conditions on the three farms were a breeding ground for disease and “a serious risk to human health”.  

An RSPCA spokesperson said: "The footage shows a number of serious concerns, for example workers kicking turkeys and birds that are unable to walk properly, which is unacceptable.  

"Some birds appear to have suffered severe feather pecking, and we would expect these, and any seriously injured birds, to be appropriately segregated and receive appropriate treatment and/or be humanely culled.”

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “We care deeply about the welfare of our animals and have been working closely with our suppliers and Red Tractor to urgently investigate this footage.”

An Asda spokesperson said: “None of Asda’s own-label Christmas turkeys have been sourced from these farms. We do stock a small number of lines from a branded supplier who sources from one of the farms, and we will be picking up with them as we expect all suppliers to uphold comprehensive animal-welfare standards.”

Morrisons said it had not taken any turkeys from the farms.  

Tesco said the Avara farms were in its supply chain but that it had not sourced from them for Christmas.

A Red Tractor spokesperson said: “Protecting animal health and welfare is one of our top priorities and we take any allegations of breaches to our standards very seriously. As soon as we were made aware of the footage, we launched an immediate investigation to substantiate the claims and to review the behaviours seen. Corrective action was immediately taken on the workers identified in [the] film.”

An Avara spokesperson said edited footage of this nature “was captured to support the aims of the group promoting it and, as such, will always focus on a few isolated examples in an otherwise healthy flock”.

Intensively farmed turkeys often suffer health problems

They added: “Ordinarily, any welfare concerns are identified quickly and resolved. Health records support this and Red Tractor audits are evidence both farms are well run overall. In our review of the video relating to our farms, we note the vast majority of birds, typically shown only in the background, are healthy, clean and mobile.

“Based on the evidence we’ve seen, the behaviour of one of the third-party catching team has no place in our business and we understand that, once identified, the team member will be suspended pending a thorough investigation. That person will be barred from working at any Avara-operated farm in the future.”

The spokesperson claimed that the activists increased the risk of spreading bird flu and alarmed the birds when they entered the sheds.

An image from the undercover footage

A Green Label representative said an internal investigation was conducted into the footage and a Red Tractor inspection found no problems, adding: “The birds are not overweight and have no issues accessing water and feed.” Their stocking levels were lower than permitted under Red Tractor parameters.

“The Viva report shows a bird with a fresh pecking wound. Our flock records show that the affected bird was humanely culled the morning after the footage was taken. Additional environmental enrichment was also provided to prevent further incidents," the spokesperson said.

“The welfare of our birds is an absolute priority. We work to the highest standards in hygiene, biosecurity and animal welfare.”

Farms were under veterinary supervision, Green Label added, and staff had the necessary training, with regular updates.

A British Retail Consortium spokesperson said members took their responsibilities to animal welfare seriously and worked closely with trusted suppliers on high welfare standards, adding: “They have strict processes and will thoroughly investigate any evidence of non-conformity to ensure any problems are immediately addressed.”

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