Chickens were found “collapsing in agony, deformed and dying” at farms ­supplying the “ethical” supermarket Co-op, according to activists who secretly filmed inside them.

The footage captured birds panting from heat and stress, while dirty floors left the birds lying in their own waste and their eyes stinging, it’s claimed. And the hidden cameras showed workers tossing hundreds of dead chickens into bins, in one case laughing and saying: “I’ve never seen so many maggots in my life.”

Charity Open Cages, which filmed from August to November last year at three East Midlands farms supplying the supermarket, says their findings reveal chickens “in a horrendous state”, suffering because they are bred to grow much more quickly than their bodies can cope with for a faster turnover.

The videos have raised anger among Co-op members, who in May voted by 96 per cent for the chain to consider adopting the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC), which means stopping using fast-growing breeds, instead using only birds that grow slowly, something chains such as M&S and Greggs have adopted.

The company, which prides itself on its animal-welfare ethics, agreed to consider the change and to give birds more space from next year.

But Connor Jackson, chief executive of Open Cages, said campaigners had been meeting Co-op chiefs for years and they had repeatedly promised to “look into” the problem of “Frankenchickens” all that time. “They said before the votes that they would not implement the BCC,” he said. “But it was obvious that members were voting for the BCC to be implemented.”

One member, Aaron Browning, said: “Watching the undercover footage, seeing the bins overflowing with dead chickens, looking at the birds’ twisted legs and bleary eyes – it makes me ashamed to be a member. “We told the leadership we didn’t want sick Frankenchickens on Co-op shelves.”

Another member, Hannah Dickson, said: “While more space is good, it isn’t good enough when these chickens are dropping dead of organ failure and struggle to walk. The cost-of-living crisis presents challenges, but these don’t justify animal cruelty.”

The activists say some of the chickens filmed were near death, unable to eat or drink because they could not stand. The footage shows some chickens unable to walk, some have wounds or missing feathers and others are flapping but appear too sick or heavy to stand.

Standard factory-farmed chickens are engineered to gain weight exceptionally rapidly – straining their organs. For many their legs are too brittle to bear their own weight. These “Frankenchickens” put on weight 400 per cent more quickly than is natural.

Questions were also raised over hygiene. “Numerous dead bodies were left to rot among the living and one dead bird was black and blue and buried in litter, apparently decaying,” said Mr Jackson.

No welfare issues were identified at inspections by Red Tractor this summer. One farm even featured in a Co-op training video for farmers on good practices.

In a report last year Co-op stated: “We are committed to creating products produced to good animal-welfare standards, regardless of their budget. We have, for many years, been pioneering in our approach to improving the welfare of animals.”

A Co-op spokesperson said: “Ensuring the animals in our supply chain are looked after is a priority for us, and all our fresh chicken meets or exceeds Red Tractor or RSPCA Assured standards. Supported by our new commitment, we will be reducing chicken stocking density to give the chickens 20 per cent more space and a healthier life. We are proud supporters of British farming, allowing us to conveniently provide great quality, 100 per cent British meat and poultry.”

A spokesman for the company that owns the farms said:“We maintain a zero-tolerance approach to any verifiable non-compliances, although in this case we cannot confirm this footage, filmed a year ago, was taken inside our premises. “However, for the record, the farms in question are all accredited and have been subject to multiple independent inspections as recently as June 2023.”

Original source: https://www.independent.co.uk