22.01.18 Environment

Why a million chickens are dying on the way to the abattoir

More than a million chickens a year are dying while being transported to slaughter, according to official figures which give rise to fresh concern over welfare standards in Britain’s £7.6bn meat industry.

Figures obtained by the i and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, from the regulator, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), show that 1.35m chickens were found to have died during transport to abattoirs or while waiting for slaughter. This was over a 15-month period between 2016 and 2017.

A further 21,500 ducks, geese, turkeys and other poultry suffered the same “dead on arrival” fate, which the FSA said is due to factors including birds suffocating in over-filled transportation crates and poor procedures when birds are caught for transport.

The data shows that large numbers of birds were also found with abnormalities or illness at processing plants, including some 680,000 with bruising or fractures and 376,000 in emaciated condition. A further 278,000 were suffering respiratory disease.

The figures, obtained under Freedom of Information rules, represent a fraction of the total number of poultry raised and slaughtered in the UK each year - some 950m birds are reared annually for meat, contributing £3.6bn to the economy.

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But campaigners and MPs last night warned about the damaging effects of poor welfare and demanded rapid improvements.

Neil Parish MP, the chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee, said he wanted to see “immediate action” from the FSA and the industry to improve standards.

He said: “It is essential that we maintain the highest animal welfare standards at each stage of the poultry and livestock supply chain - including transportation. Poor welfare standards lead to poor consumer confidence in British produce, in both internal and overseas markets.”

The FSA has become increasingly concerned about welfare standards in Britain’s booming poultry sector, which the watchdog describes as having a “higher than average proportion of welfare non-compliances”. There have been a number of prosecutions and the FSA said it had recorded nearly 1,000 separate incidents linked to poultry transport during a five-month study last year.

Of the main welfare issues identified, 45 per cent of cases related to damage to transportation crates, ten per cent were due to foot-pad dermatitis (a skin condition linked to intensive rearing), a further ten per cent due to overstocking of crates and five per cent blamed on poor procedures during catching.

The FSA said the majority of incidents were linked to a small number of unnamed hauliers and it was working to improve systems to identify companies and individual drivers linked to welfare breaches as well as revising guidance on how to transport poultry.

Poultry is by far Britain’s most popular meat, accounting for nearly half of all meat consumed in the UK and the industry supports 79,000 jobs.

Most meat or “broiler” birds are reared in sheds in which producers say feed consumption, temperature, humidity and CO2 levels are carefully monitored to ensure optimal welfare conditions and minimise the use of interventions such as antibiotics.

But campaigners argue there is a strong case for less dense stocking (meaning more space for poultry) and slower-growing birds. The average growth period for a chicken has fallen from 63 days in the 1960s to the current level of 38 days, with the amount of feed required to produce a ready-for-slaughter bird halved.

The FSA data showed that millions of chickens and other poultry were found to be affected by diseases including hepatitis, dermatitis and cellulitis.

Campaigners also believe that the transportation deaths are linked to intensive rearing techniques. Emma Slawinski, director of campaigns at Compassion in World Farming, said: “Whilst these figures may come as a surprise to many, sadly this is the reality for poultry raised on factory farms.”

She added: “Intensively-reared birds have been subject to genetic selection. These fast-growing birds suffer from lameness, due to quick weight gain, and a high risk of heart disease. When these weak and unhealthy birds are transported, many do not survive. Stress and trauma from poor handling also contribute to mortality rate.”

The FSA data showed that millions of chickens and other poultry were found to be affected by diseases including hepatitis, dermatitis and cellulitis.

The British Poultry Council, which represents the vast majority of producers, said its members were working with the FSA and the government to improve welfare, and pointed to what it said was a record of accepting change and encouraging innovation.

Richard Griffiths, the chief executive of the body, said: “Even though we’re talking about a very small fraction of a percentage of birds reported dead on arrival, it is a level that we are striving to reduce. As a nation we grow a billion birds a year. Bird health and welfare remain a top priority for poultry producers and we are committed to ensuring that appropriate measures are put in place to deal with problems as soon as they are identified.”

Animal welfare groups across Europe, including the RSPCA, earlier this month called for supermarkets and restaurants to sign up to new welfare standards for farmed chickens, including more natural light for birds, room to perch and the addition of “enrichment” items for pecking.

Main image, of chickens in an intensive poultry farm, by Rob Stothard