An RSPCA spokesman told Channel 5 News today (July 2 2008) that ‘the Society’s reputation is, to some extent, at stake’, following an Animal Aid undercover investigation of an RSPCA-approved Freedom Food (FF) chicken farm in Somerset.
The farm in question was immediately suspended from the FF Scheme and the Society has announced ‘a full-scale review’ of its ‘high-welfare’ initiative.
More than 30,000 birds were held in the 2,300 square metres unit filmed by Animal Aid. The chickens had no access to the outside.
On three visits – when the birds were, respectively, 7, 36 and 47 days old – the national campaign group found numerous chickens immobilised and often dying from hunger, because agonising leg and hip injuries prevented them from reaching feed and water stations. The presence of ‘any overtly lame bird’, according to Freedom Food rules, ‘will be taken as non-compliance with RSPCA welfare standards’.
Another of the rules demands that a set number of perches be provided to keep the birds active and healthy. Animal Aid found perches in the shed but, on each visit, they were stacked against a wall, and therefore unusable for the majority of birds.
The farm’s paperwork showed that, during the first 36 days of their growing period, 631 chickens died or had been ‘culled’ because of disease or injury. Of those casualties, 310 perished in three successive days. This was a period, according to farm records, when the shed temperature was several degrees hotter than laid down in guidelines.
Double Gate Farm, in Godney, Somerset, is operated by Millard Poultry Ltd – one of 157 producing a total of 500,000 chickens a week for the West Country firm of Lloyd Maunder. LM employs 800 people and also operates 15 butchers shops.
According to Lloyd Maunder’s website, every Millard Poultry chicken ‘gets the best possible attention, enjoying a carefree existence…’
The RSPCA claims that its Freedom Food (FF) chickens are happier and healthier than those produced under more conventional intensive systems. All FF members are inspected once a year and are said to be subject to spot checks. Under the scheme, farm workers must inspect their chickens three times a day, with one of the checks being sufficiently thorough to identify and deal appropriately with any sick bird.
Freedom Food products recently received a massive boost as a result of fulsome endorsements from campaigning celebrity chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver.
Last week, Channel 5 News reported on the ‘appalling conditions’ in which chickens were being kept at a Freedom Food egg farm in Norfolk. Animal Aid handed over its evidence to the channel and as a result of their pursuit of the issue, the RSPCA has been forced to announce strong action.
Says Animal Aid Director Andrew Tyler:
‘The public has been encouraged to believe that they can set aside their growing concerns about the suffering of farmed animals by buying so called ‘high welfare’ animal products, such as those produced under the Freedom Food label, But Freedom Food animals are not free and they are not content. Many of the birds we filmed were suffering slow, agonising deaths within a gigantic, soulless factory unit. For so long as animals are treated as commodities – to be mass-produced and slaughtered for food – they will suffer. It doesn’t matter how their carcases are labelled.’
855 million chickens are slaughtered annually in the UK. 95% are kept indoors.
Conventional birds (27% of whom have significant or serious walking difficulties) are slaughtered at 39-42 days. Free range birds are slaughtered at 56 days and organic are slaughtered at 80 days. Freedom Food birds are killed at between 49 and 52 days.
Notes to Editors
For further information or to arrange interviews, contact Andrew Tyler on 01732 364546.
View photos taken during the investigation below at 7, 36 and 47 days old. Contact us for high resolution versions.
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