Half of UK chickens produced by US agriculture giants

Half of the UK’s chickens are being produced by companies fully or partly controlled by US agribusinesses, according to an analysis of industry data, fuelling concerns of growing American influence over the British food sector.

Moy Park, owned by Pilgrims Pride, now produces approximately 312 million birds a year, while Avara Foods – a joint venture between the US giant Cargill and the UK’s Faccenda Foods – slaughters 234 million. About a billion birds are killed every year in UK abattoirs.

The growing US presence on British chicken farms has been accompanied by growth in American-style intensive farming. A Guardian and Bureau of Investigative Journalism investigation has found that the number of large intensive farms in Britain has risen by a further 7% in the past three years, despite previous assurances from the government that the UK would not adopt US farming practices.

In 2017, Michael Gove, then the environment secretary, said: “One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country”. He was responding to the Guardian and Bureau’s revelation that there were almost 800 intensive farms in the UK that would fulfil the US definition of a “megafarm”: a unit housing 125,000 chickens raised for meat, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy or 1,000 beef cattle.

Gove's comments escalated into a row with Liam Fox, then a fellow Cabinet member, over whether US hygiene standards – such as washing chicken in chlorine – would be deemed acceptable to secure a trade deal after Brexit. Many of the megafarms revealed in the 2017 Bureau investigation were supplying chicken to supermarkets and major fast food chains. Some are known to have supplied Moy Park and Faccenda Foods.

Megafarm is not an official term in the UK, where the largest regulatory classification is “intensive” – housing at least 40,000 poultry birds or 2,000 pigs grown for meat or 750 breeding sows. These industrial facilities require a government permit to operate.

According to data obtained by The Guardian, the number of industrial sized poultry and pig units requiring a permit has risen by 7% since 2017 from 1,669 to 1,786. The vast majority of these are chicken farms. Almost 90 more permitted intensive farms have opened in England since 2017, and 20 more are operating in Wales.

Intensive cattle farms do not currently require a permit, although about a dozen feedlot-style beef units are known to operate in the UK, alongside about 70 intensive dairies.

Industrial-scale farms are controversial because they require keeping tens of thousands of animals in a small space. Campaigners and independent experts say this can hamper natural behaviours, such as nesting. The US poultry industry has a chequered record on food safety and animal welfare.

Chickens at an intensive farm in the UK Rob Stothard/TBIJ

Advocates maintain, however, that megafarms and intensive farms take up much less space and allow animals to be kept securely away from predators and potential carriers of disease. Conditions are tightly controlled, allowing farmers to monitor the amount of daylight, water and feed for the animals, and if disease develops the livestock can be treated quickly. They are much cheaper to run than traditional farms.

Gary Ford, from the NFU said: “British farmers already operate to some of the highest animal welfare and environmental standards in the world and it’s crucial we recognise that animal husbandry and stockmanship are the greatest factors that determine animal health and welfare, not farm size or system of production.”

Uncertainty over farming subsidies post-Brexit and increased demand has forced farmers to diversify, particularly into poultry farming. “This is an attractive industry for both existing farmers and new entrants to move into,” he said.

But Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming said the increase is due to decades of encouragements to factory farm, farmers hooked on subsidies and distorted markets: “The reality is that farming animals isn’t a big profit maker for farmers, who have been relegated to commodity servants to big food corporations, producing at or below the cost of production. Hooked on a treadmill, some see getting bigger and more intensive as their only hope.”

Dominated by a handful of companies, the US poultry industry is vertically integrated, with big businesses tending to control almost all of the production chain, from hatching the chicks and producing the feed to owning the slaughter and processing plants. UK businesses now operate a similar model.

Pilgrims Pride, which was set up by the Pilgrim brothers 70 years ago, is an iconic symbol of industrialised US agriculture. In 2009 a majority stake in it was bought by the Brazilian JBS corporation, which has been accused of profiting from Amazon deforestation, but Pilgrims Pride is still headquartered in Colorado and operates under American regulations.

The Bureau's investigation into megafarms in 2018

Some US poultry companies have been accused of exploiting contract farmers, with farmers allegedly pitted against each other for payment based on the weight and health of their animals.

Several chicken companies recently successfully lobbied the Trump administration to waive limits on factory line speeds at some poultry slaughterhouses, raising concerns over food safety, bird welfare and injuries to employees. There is evidence that at least one UK firm recently sought to increase its line speeds.

Animal welfare activists have suggested higher line speeds mean live birds have to be hung for slaughter at breakneck speeds, raising the risk that birds could be fully conscious at the moment of slaughter.

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Header image credit: Rob Stothard/TBIJ

Our Food and Farming project is partly funded out of Bureau core funds and partly by the Hollick Family Foundation (for 2020) and The Guardian. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.