At least 500 chicks died in one day in a shed at a farm supplying Tesco because they were considered too weak to be profitable, an undercover investigation found.
Hundreds of young birds “considered disposable” succumbed to an early death because of “obesity”, or had their necks broken.
The “horrific” practices were said to be routine at at farms working for the supermarket.
Secret footage obtained by The Independent shows workers admitting they don’t want to invest in feeding or keeping warm chicks that they cannot later sell.
Of those deliberately killed, many flapped or blinked for minutes afterwards, apparently still conscious, according to the activists.
At another farm, chicks were culled because they were suspected of having broken bones – caused when crate-loads of chicks were poured out. Not all survived the fall, it was claimed.
At yet another two units, young birds were found to become frequently trapped inside drinkers or feeders.
The scenes were filmed by an activist for the Animal Equality group who was employed undercover for two months at four farms supplying Tesco. They were run by Moy Park – one of the UK’s biggest chicken processors, which supplies major supermarkets and McDonald’s.
The worker said they saw how hundreds of chicks were left to die each day. Legally, employees may legally kill up to 70 small chicks a day by breaking their necks.
Earlier this week, The Independent revealed how “unprofitable” chicks at another Moy Park farm, which supplies both Tesco and Ocado, were deliberately deprived of water and left to die of dehydration to save the cost of caring for them.
Moy Park was named a Poultry Business of the Year finalist in the National Egg and Poultry Awards 2020.
The four farms in the east Midlands that were investigated are endorsed by the Red Tractor scheme, which promises high animal welfare standards.
The investigator said the high daily death rates were caused by chicks being weak or unwell, in many cases because of their breed; or being culled as workers deemed them too small and being left to dehydrate. A farm employee told the undercover activist this was normal.
The undercover worker filmed colleagues killing chickens being by snapping their necks or, in many instances, cutting their necks against sharp metal edges.
Animal Equality said its research showed breaking necks this way was standard practice across various farms.
The government’s Farm Animal Welfare Committee has stated that “humane on-farm killing of small chicks is challenging” and that “cervical (neck) dislocation is increasingly seen as problematic in welfare terms”, adding: “There is significant evidence that manual cervical dislocation does not produce immediate loss of consciousness.”
The law requires that sick or injured animals be killed as soon as possible, and killing must be “rapid and effective”.
One worker was filmed saying: “If I’m going to grow a bird for 30 days, feed it, keep it warm, let it drink the water and everything else, and then it not get processed at the factory because it’s not big enough, it’s just rejected, then I’ve just spent a pound feeding it [for nothing].
“The more of those you can get out, the better the profitability of the farm will be; the better the profitability of the company will be; the better the company is.”
Michelle Baxter Wickham, of Animal Equality, said: “These chickens were left to writhe around after workers clumsily attempted to break their necks. It’s heartbreaking and outrageous.”
Abigail Penny, executive director of Animal Equality UK, said: “Just days ago we revealed covert footage from other farms operated by Moy Park, showing chickens deprived of water, suffering from painful burns and blisters, and bred to be so enormous they could barely stand.
“It is of grave concern to me that, in Moy Park’s view, there were ‘no major breaches’ and that the horrific practices filmed are permitted under Red Tractor standards. Clearly, this is what modern chicken farming looks like.”
Animal Equality, which is urging Tesco to sign up to the Better Chicken Commitment on higher welfare, also said that one worker highlighted issues at the hatchery – also owned by Moy Park – where the chicks are bred.
The worker claimed: “They won’t admit it – the hatchery – but they get diseases and infections. Then they put the birds in these trays, send them to us and then we have to deal with it in the sheds.”
Filming took place late last year, and the footage was passed the Animal and Plant Health Agency, the RSPCA and Red Tractor in early 2020, before investigations were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Animal Equality said chicks suffered weak legs and heart problems caused by selective breeding for rapid weight gain, and could not go outdoors or carry out their natural behaviour.
Andrew Knight, a professor of animal welfare, said more humane killing methods than neck-breaking were gas chambers, electrical shock and anaesthetic overdoses.
Moy Park, Tesco and Red Tractor all said they did not want to add to their statement of earlier this week. Moy Park said it treated the matter very seriously, adding: “A robust assessment of the farms and a review of the footage by an experienced veterinary surgeon specialising in poultry found that despite the examples highlighted, the overall flocks are displaying natural behaviours and appear in good health in most of the footage.
“The farms featured have also been investigated thoroughly by local authorities and regulators and no major breaches were identified.”
A spokesman added the company had implemented measures to ensure standards were adhered to, “including refreshed training manuals, and upgraded face-to-face and online training”.
“Any breach is completely unacceptable and would result in immediate corrective actions. This particular footage is edited with an agenda in mind, and we are confident that it is not reflective of the high standards and certified practices upheld across our wider farming community.”
Tesco’s statement read: “We require all our suppliers to uphold high animal-welfare standards. We were made aware of this footage earlier this year and immediately investigated. The farms shown have been inspected by veterinary experts, local authorities and regulators. Where issues were found, Moy Park has implemented measures to ensure the required high standards are met.”
Red Tractor said: ‘We take animal welfare very seriously. All the farms in the footage were investigated by us and stakeholder partners including their vet, the APHA and trading standards to ensure there was a comprehensive account of farm practices. No evidence was found of breaches to legal requirements or Red Tractor standards.”