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‘Free-range’ egg farms that supply to supermarket chains have been stripped of their RSPCA Assured status after an undercover investigation found hens living in ‘appalling’ conditions.

The covert investigation – conducted by Animal Justice Project (AJP) – flew drones over the farms discovering that the ‘free-range’ hens were not let out on any of the multiple days that they filmed. Instead secretly filmed footage revealed that the tens of thousands of birds were living in dark and cramped sheds and were surrounded by the bodies and skeletons of dead hens.

In some cases, the horrific conditions made the hens distressed causing them to lose feathers and exhibit behaviours towards each other including cannibalism, bullying and aggressive pecking. They also found injured and sick hens that were unable to reach food or water on the upper tiers and so were left waiting to die.

The five farms that were investigated were Harper Farm in Leeds, owned by BFREPA director Jack Stephenson, BFREPA director Pauline Jones’ family farm in Powys, Wales, BFREPA director Lucy Hinch’s three family farms in Leicestershire. The farms provide eggs to brands on sale at major supermarkets across the UK, including Sainsbury’s.

Their products were labelled as being both ‘free-range’ and RSPCA Assured – a standard first introduced 25 years ago to combat animal cruelty – as well as bearing the Lion mark, which represents the ‘highest standards’ in UK egg production according to the BEIC.

At Harper Farm in Leeds – where 46,000 hens are housed across six sheds – investigators witnessed ‘distressing’ scenes of overcrowding, cannibalism, neglect and bullying. Footage shows bags filled with dead hens, as well as injured and sick hens unable to reach food or water left to die around the already-dead carcasses of others. One hen was filmed being brutally pecked to death over several hours, whilst others also suffered extensive injuries inflicted by other birds. AJP also claimed the hens were not once given outside access, which should be daily under RSPCA Assured criteria, in the four days they observed the farm.

One worker in the farm’s award-winning cafe was covertly filmed stating Harper Farm supplies eggs to James Potter Eggs, which are sold at Tesco, Co-Op, Sainsbury’s and ASDA.

A spokesperson for ASDA said they were not currently sourcing any own-brand eggs from the farms mentioned in the investigation and said they stood behind the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) response as a member ‘with regards to chicken welfare’.

Sainsbury’s admitted that Harper Farm supplies ‘less than 0.1 per cent’ of its own-brand eggs; adding that they were urgently investigating the allegations into the treatment of hens with Yorkshire Farmhouse, the parent company behind James Potter Eggs.

At a farm in Powys, central Wales, owned by the family of BFREPA director Pauline Jones and currently run by her husband, Richard Jones, AJP claims to have observed similar horrors including illness, cannibalism, dead birds and widespread neglect. Over three days they observed the farm, AJP said hens were not once seen roaming outside. The farm, which houses 21,500 hens, supplies to Sheriff’s Wood Eggs, which supplies eggs to company Stonegate, who provide eggs to Ocado and Sainsbury’s.

Stonegate has since suspended its use of Sheriff’s Wood Eggs and Sainsbury’s said they never used eggs from the farm in Wales.

Three farms in Leicestershire belonging to the family of BFREPA director Lucy Hinch housing more than 216,000 ‘free-range’ hens were also investigated. The charity filmed the farms on four separate days when hens were not let out, despite favourable weather conditions and there being no bird flu restrictions on those days.

Aldi admitted to being supplied by one of the farms connected with Lucy Hinch at the time of AJP’s investigations, but added they no longer were.

Tesco neither confirmed or denied whether any of the farms investigated supplied eggs to its stores, but asked reporters to contact the BRC ‘for an industry-wide view’.

Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the BRC, said: ‘Our members take their responsibilities to animal welfare very seriously and work closely with trusted suppliers so that high welfare standards are upheld. They have strict processes in place and will thoroughly investigate any evidence of non-conformity to ensure that any problems are immediately addressed.’

Co-op denied that they sourced any eggs from any of the three investigated farms and only sell ‘100% free range eggs across all our 2,400 stores’.

A Stonegate spokesperson said: ‘The care and welfare of our flocks are of the utmost importance to us and we take allegations of mistreatment of birds very seriously. On receiving the footage, we immediately suspended the farm in question pending both our own investigation and the reports of qualified independent veterinarians. We also insisted that the farm refer the matter to their local authority. The site was audited by an RSPCA auditor during an unannounced inspection and separately the British Industry Egg Council have also carried out an audit. We will wait for the collective findings of the respective reports before taking the necessary actions.’

A spokesperson for LJ Fairburn & Son, which was supplied by some of the farms associated with Lucy Hinch, said: ‘Since being made aware of a video apparently showing unacceptable welfare conditions at a farm owned by one of our producers, we have launched an immediate investigation.

‘We are not currently sourcing eggs from the farm concerned. The welfare of hens, both on our own farms and those of our producers, is paramount and forms the foundations of our business.’

LJ Fairburn & Son’s eggs are sold at ASDA stores across the country.

Veterinary Professor Andrew Knight, who viewed the AJP footage from the investigated farms, said it showed the hens suffering in below-par conditions. ‘In short, the conditions in which these hens were kept were likely to be chronically stressful to them, and to cause great suffering in numerous hens,’ he said. ‘The suffering and death of laying hens appeared to be present across all the free-range egg farms I viewed footage of. Multiple serious health problems were clearly evident, without any signs of the veterinary care these warranted.’

He added: ‘Many hens also showed severe feather loss, consistent with barren environment leaving limited opportunity to move, or to exercise highly-motivated natural behaviours, such as foraging, exploring and dust-bathing. This results in chronic stress, which can result in feather pecking with subordinate birds sometimes unable to escape. Subordinate birds were filmed suffering prolonged attacks in this footage. This causes great suffering, and can lead to the death of attacked birds.’

AJP Campaigns Manager Ayrton Cooper said: ‘Despite the glossy advertising campaigns promoting ‘cage-free’ eggs, the reality is far from humane.

‘What our investigation has uncovered is a stark reminder that labels can be deceiving, and behind the façade of ‘cage-free’ lies a world of suffering for millions of hens. It’s time for consumers to question the ethics behind their food choices and demand transparency and accountability from the food industry. ‘

An RSPCA Assured spokesperson said: ‘We are extremely concerned by this upsetting footage, which falls well below the higher welfare standards we expect on RSPCA Assured certified farms. Animal welfare is our sole priority and as soon as the footage was reported to us we suspended all three farms and urgently launched an investigation. This means the farms cannot currently sell or market any eggs as RSPCA Assured. One case of poor welfare is one too many, which is why we are taking this complaint very seriously.’

The AJP investigation also comes after all major UK retailers recently pledged to exclusively sell ‘cage-free’ eggs – the same as free-range eggs – by 2025.

Jack Stephenson at Harper Farm, Pauline Jones and BFREPA were all contacted but did not respond. Lucy Hinch was contacted but opted not to comment.

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

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