Millions of Supermarket Chickens get Burns from Excrement

A BBC investigation discovered that millions of supermarket chickens have skin burns as a result of living in their own waste.

Ammonia from excrement causes “hock burn”. According to research, it can be found on one-third of the birds in some stores, indicating inferior farm conditions.

The BBC contacted the ten largest UK chains to inquire about its availability on their shelves. Co-op and Aldi reported the highest rates, but five declined to disclose information.

The British Retail Consortium stated that the situation was being treated “very seriously”.

High stocking density of birds is often blamed for incidences of hock burn

Hock burn can be linked to a high stocking density of birds and is caused by prolonged exposure to moist, dirty litter. It appears on packaged and prepared meat as brown ulcers on the back of the leg.

Chicken with charred markings is still safe to eat. However, the level of hock burn in a poultry flock is a recognised measure of overall welfare standards on farms.

Red Tractor, the largest farm and food assurance programme in the UK, establishes a goal of keeping hock burn below 15% in a flock.

According to a Co-op spokesperson, they made every effort to minimise the occurrence of hock burn, also known as hock marking.

An Aldi spokesperson mentioned that they collaborate closely with suppliers to “ensure continuous improvement in our food products.”

Animal rights activists in the UK conducted random retail inspections

Kate Parkes, a poultry specialist at the RSPCA, expressed her concern about hock burn being a prevalent health issue in intensive farm settings.

She mentioned that the likelihood of hock burn increases when birds are not well cared for, bred for rapid growth, or raised in crowded environments.

Although Lidl did not share information with the BBC, it has been under scrutiny from an animal welfare campaign group, Open Cages, through store spot checks.

Volunteers were requested to inspect over 500 whole chickens on shelves at 22 Lidl stores in nine UK towns and cities from September to November last year.

Noticing any indication of hock burn ulcers, their customers discovered that 74% of the chickens they examined had the condition.

Connor Jackson, co-founder of the campaign group, emphasised that hock burn was just one symptom of a broader issue.

He mentioned that numerous retailers obtain chickens from crowded sheds, bred for fast growth, leading to significant suffering for the animals.

Lidl has received a request to adopt the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC), a collection of RSPCA-supported improved welfare guidelines for the sector.

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Health status under close observation

According to a Lidl spokesperson, the quantity of chicken products examined by Open Cages in their survey was a small fraction of the fresh chicken sold during that time.

He mentioned that the numbers from Open Cages are in strong contrast with their own data, which is lower than industry figures that are publicly accessible.

The company refused to disclose its specific hock burn numbers but mentioned that they are preparing to release a comprehensive animal welfare report shortly.

“Animal welfare is a top priority for us, and we closely monitor the health of animals in our supply chain. Regular independent audits are conducted to ensure that standards are being met,” he stated.

On store shelves, you can still see the brown ulcers on chicken goods, both raw and cooked

The British Poultry Council, representing suppliers, processors, and farmers, emphasised the importance of distinguishing between formal inspection and shop-shelf experiments to avoid misleading and misinforming.

The statement emphasised that when hock-marking does occur, it is seen as a way to pinpoint areas for enhancement. The industry operates based on scientific standards, focuses on research and development, and embraces innovation.

The BBC reached out to 10 top UK food retailers for animal welfare information: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Aldi, Co-op, Lidl, Waitrose, Iceland, and Ocado.

Five companies, including Asda, Morrisons, Lidl, Iceland, and Ocado, did not disclose exact numbers.

According to the British Retail Consortium, grocery stores adhere to welfare standards that are audited by third parties

Out of the remaining five companies, Co-op, which receives around 30 million chickens annually, reported hock burn in 36.7% of its poultry.

The company’s spokesperson mentioned that they collaborate with their supplier to reduce the occurrence of hock markings.

She mentioned that the company recently transitioned to using birds with lower stocking density, which will greatly improve the reduction of hock markings and provide other welfare benefits.

Aldi’s latest annual report showed that 33.5% of its chickens had hock burn.

An Aldi representative stated that they have documented and shared welfare information to promote transparency.

Ensuring animal welfare is a top priority for us, and we collaborate closely with our suppliers to enhance the quality of our food and non-food items.

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A significant development has occurred

In the latest company reports, it was revealed that Tesco had a 26.3% rate in its chickens for the year 2022/23. The company refused to provide an official statement but mentioned that its data covered any indication of hock burn, regardless of size, something that its rivals may not document.

Sainsbury’s discovered hock burn in 20% of its chickens and emphasised transparency in their annual health and welfare reports. They also increased the space for their chickens by 20% compared to the industry standard.

Waitrose reported the lowest annual figure of 2.7%. The company informed the BBC that it has decreased hock marking levels by 80% from 2014 to 2022 by closely monitoring environmental conditions on farms and providing training to farmers.

“Today, the vast majority of our birds are now free of any hock marking, and our goal is to eliminate hock burn completely,” a spokeswoman stated.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, emphasised the importance of animal welfare to their members and the need for high standards from suppliers.

They are dedicated to consistently enhancing the quality and welfare standards of their products.

The UK government has established a code of practice for the welfare of meat chickens, also known as broilers. According to the guidelines, the health and welfare of poultry is closely connected to the quality of litter. Issues like hock burn are often a result of inadequate litter quality.

According to a Defra spokesperson, it is mandatory for all chickens to have continuous access to dry litter to maintain their health and well-being. Any violations of this legislation are treated with utmost seriousness.

According to the NFU, British farmers maintain high animal welfare standards by using well-ventilated barns to prevent issues like wet bedding and hock burn in birds.

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