Secret filming also shows how other baby birds deemed too small to be worth raising had their necks crushed or snapped by workers, causing a painful death.
Some were left to die because they were too weak to feed themselves, it was claimed.
An undercover activist for animal protection organisation Animal Equality, who was employed by the company, shot footage showing that at one farm workers raised the height of the drinkers every day for about 40 days, so that the smaller chicks – those considered not profitable – were unable to reach them.
At two farms, workers were filmed crushing chickens’ necks in their hands so the farm did not “waste” food and water on those that would not be profitable. The investigator said that as a result, hundreds were suffering agonising deaths each day.
One farm manager was reported to have said: “I can look at a day-old chick and say ‘that’s going to make 1.85[kg] at 32 days or it’s not’; if it isn’t, there’s no point feeding it. It’s cheaper to get rid of it and kill it. Because at the end of the day it’s about making money.”
All the farms are certified by Red Tractor, the UK scheme that claims to guarantee high standards of food and animal welfare. And the practices, filmed at farms operated by Moy Park, one of the UK’s biggest chicken processors, flout animal-welfare law and government codes.
Moy Park, which raises and kills more than 312 million birds each year, is the source of nearly a third of all the chicken sold in the UK. It is one of Europe’s 10 biggest poultry producers, supplying restaurants as well as smaller grocery stores.
The undercover footage, taken at farms in the East Midlands, also suggests:
- Chicks developed raw skin burns on their feet and chests from urine-soaked floors
- Birds bred to grow so huge so rapidly that they suffered from leg injuries and were unable to carry the weight of their own bodies
- Chickens were crammed into barns so overcrowded they were barely able to move or stretch their wings
Birds in sheds were filmed gasping for air because “their hearts and lungs struggled to cope with their unnaturally huge bodies”. Some struggled to walk, and others could not stand up.
Other animal groups have previously said most chickens in UK farming are selectively bred so that they grow to the equivalent of a human baby weighing 28st at just three years old.
The farm sheds housed around 30,000 birds, whereas in the wild, chickens would live in flocks of up to 12, according to Animal Equality.
The government’s animal-welfare codes require drinkers to be “adjusted for height” to allow all birds to drink.
If farm workers cull birds, it must be “rapid and effective”, and the activists says that breaking the chicks’ necks was against the regulations and the Animal Welfare Act.
One worker was seen crushing a bird’s neck against the metal handle of a bucket.
Andrew Knight, professor of animal welfare and ethics at the University of Winchester, said: “On the basis of the existing scientific evidence, there are reasonable grounds for concern that some of these birds may have experienced periods of severe suffering prior to death.”
The investigator shot the films across two months, before the coronavirus pandemic, which delayed its release.
Poultry accounts for half the meat eaten in the UK, with a billion birds slaughtered each year, a number that is growing, according to the British Poultry Council. Chicken is often considered healthier than red meat and involving less animal suffering.
Abigail Penny, executive director of Animal Equality UK, said: “These poor chickens never stood a chance. Workers killed vulnerable chicks at just a few days old, simply because they were no longer considered profitable.
“McDonald’s, Tesco, Ocado and others buying from this supplier are funding these practices.”
Last summer, thousands of chickens were found to have died at Kettlethorpe Farm, also owned by Moy Park, when kept in sheds with insufficient ventilation in a heatwave.
A Moy Park spokesperson said: “We treat this matter very seriously, and upon receipt of this video in March, we immediately initiated an investigation by our veterinary experts to ensure compliance with our animal welfare standards.
“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.”
He 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.”
A Tesco spokesperson said: “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.”
An Ocado spokesman said it was committed to the highest animal welfare levels and worked closely with suppliers to ensure they were adhered to, adding: “All of our meat and dairy products meet the Red Tractor farm assurance standards (or international equivalent) as a minimum.
“Following an investigation by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), we are satisfied that this footage is not reflective of the practices at Moy Park and this is supported by evidence from veterinary experts.”
He said Ocado was confident Moy Park adhered to high welfare standards but it would continue to monitor the situation closely.
Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Our members take their responsibilities to animal welfare very seriously. The BRC led the calls for the introduction of unannounced visits to farms across the UK to ensure compliance with all welfare standards. Any breaches to animal welfare are totally unacceptable and should be investigated immediately, with swift action taken to rectify any issues.”
A Red Tractor spokesperson 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.”
The Independent has also contacted McDonald’s for comment but a response was not received before publication.