More than a million broilers die each week in the UK before they reach slaughter weight, according to a new report.
An analysis of government figures by animal welfare charity Open Cages reveals that around 64 million chickens die prematurely each year in the UK. Dead birds can be cremated or turned into usable materials such as protein meal.
Chris Packham, the broadcaster and conservationist, said: ‘I think consumers would be completely disgusted to know that a million of these intelligent, sensitive birds are dying every week for cheap chicken on their plates.
“The utter misery these animals face on a daily basis is unnecessary and would outrage even the most ardent meat eaters as it serves no purpose but to satisfy the profits of our big supermarkets, who refuse to sell them. to help.”
Animal welfare campaigners say death rates could be drastically reduced by better welfare standards. They are urging retailers to support the Better Chicken Commitment, an initiative to phase out fast-growing breeds and reduce stocking density.
Welfare experts say the modern chicken is genetically bred to grow so quickly it can put a strain on its body, increasing the risk of cardiac arrest.
Research has shown that fast-growing chickens that reach their kill weight in just 35 days may have higher mortality, lameness and muscle disease than slower-growing breeds. Heart failure or sudden death syndrome is one of the most common causes of death in herds.
Connor Jackson, managing director of Open Cages, which produced the new report, said: “Supermarkets sell food with advertisements of animals in green fields but never show broiler chickens in sheds. It’s appalling that supermarkets continue to sell these fast-growing breeds.
While all major French retailers have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment, it is not yet supported by Britain’s biggest supermarkets. Its backers to date include Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Pret, KFC and food service company Compass Group. Sainsbury’s announced in April that its fresh chicken would be reared with 20% more space than the UK standard by March 2023.
The British Poultry Council, the industry trade group, said: ‘Our birds are the most valuable part of production so we work incredibly hard to minimize the level of mortality in the process, which on average is about 4%.
“We use various production systems, including Better Chicken Commitment, depending on consumer demand. It has a higher environmental impact and cost of production, so it currently represents only 1% 1% of the market. We are an industry driven by consumer preferences.
Andrew Opie, Food and Sustainability Director at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Our members take their animal welfare responsibilities very seriously and ensure it is a key production standards for all the meat they sell.
“Retailers are already giving consumers a choice of how their chicken is raised, including free-range and organic chicken, in addition to the standard range.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “All farm animals are protected by comprehensive and robust animal health and welfare legislation. We welcome the fact that many companies have already joined the Better Chicken Commitment and encourage others to do so. We explore how government can better support this best practice.