Chicken farming row tests the Co-op Group’s ethical mettle

The retailer has responded to protests over its sourcing of fast-growing breeds and the release of footage which, claim animal rights activists, shows cruelty at supplier farms

Ethical issues in the food industry reared their head last month when animal welfare activists released footage which, they claimed, showed inhumane treatment of chickens at three of the Co-op Group’s supplier farms.

Campaign group Open Cages said it secretly took videos and photos at three Lincolnshire farms that supply the Group between August and November last year. The footage, it claims, shows birds looking deformed, injured or dirty, near death unable to eat or drink, or suffering from untreated wounds.

The campaigners said the birds in the video were “Frankenchickens” – their term for the type of birds that have been selectively bred to grow fast to produce more meat quickly.

Connor Jackson, chief executive and co-founder of Open Cages, said: “Co-op’s loyal members and customers are being fed a deceptive and misleading fairy tale.

“These images prove that behind the carefully polished, ‘ethical’ image we all know, sick Frankenchickens are being condemned to lives of unnecessary pain, misery and stress on intensive mega farms.

“These birds simply grow too fast to lead any sort of decent life.”

The Group, along with farm operators PD Hook and H2S Ltd, said all the sites had been recently inspected by the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme – which inspects food standards – with no animal welfare issues identified.

Red Tractor said it had also reviewed the footage and does not believe there is cause for concern or a re-audit of the farm is required.

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The matter – which pits sustainability issues against affordable pricing in the middle of a cost of living crisis – was raised at this year’s Co-op Group AGM in May, where members passed a motion asking the board to “improve welfare standards for chickens and … consider adopting the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) in full”.

The BCC would mean improving stock density – the amount of space birds have on farms – and adopting a slower growing breed that meets the RSPCA welfare protocol. Currently, said the motion, only 3% of the estimated 51 million chickens supplied to the Group each year are raised to higher welfare standards. 

In its response to press coverage of the footage, the Group said it was supported the motion and is putting into action, with measures to improve stock density due to take effect in 2024.

Managing director of Food, Matt Hood, told the AGM that he would not currently advocate adopting a slower growing breed due to the cost being around 30-35% more expensive. He argued that the extra cost would likely be passed onto consumers amid the cost-of-living crisis, although the option remains open for the future.

A still from the footage taken by Open Cages, which, it claims, is taken from farms supplying the Group

Speaking in a personal capacity at the AGM, Midcounties director Vivian Woodell said that “businesses that do the right thing, lead from the front and explain why they’re doing it are the ones that will succeed in the long term”. 

He added: “It’s not right to breed animals that are going to suffer that much. It’s been good to bring this issue up in a democratic organisation where members ultimately have the power.”

The current row saw 32 protesters, 24 of whom were members of the Group, gather outside its Manchester HQ on 20 August, holding placards and large blood-splattered membership cards. Co-op member and protest organiser Hannah Dickson said: “We voted for change expecting that deformed, sick and dying Frankenchickens would no longer be tolerated. Giving the birds more space is good, but these chickens have misery hardwired into their DNA; even in perfect conditions they’ll suffer. I am proud to stand up for animals, and I know our membership is behind us – when will Co-op listen?”

In response, the Group has pointed to a lack of evidence as to the date and location of the footage, and accused protesters of misrepresenting its response to the members’ motion. It said it was following the motion by acting to improve farm conditions and reporting more publicly on chicken welfare, and by considering the feasibility of signing up to the BCC in full. 

In response to Open Cages’ claims, a spokesperson for the Group 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% more space and a healthier life. 

“We are proud supporters of British farming, allowing us to conveniently provide great quality, 100% British meat and poultry for our customers.”

The Group added: “We understand that the three farms alleged to be shown in the footage have all recently been inspected by Red Tractor with no animal welfare issues identified.

“In May 2023, we announced a significant step forward in our chicken welfare with the confirmation that all fresh Co-op chicken will be reared with a reduced maximum stocking density of 30kg/m2, giving the chickens 20% more space and a healthier life. This will be implemented in our supply chain in 2024.”

“Our free-range chicken is already reared to the lower stocking density whilst the total chicken offering complies with acknowledged high level welfare standards on stunning, compliance with legislation and environment enrichment. Co-op also publicly reports on key welfare indicators on an annual basis.”

With regard to the AGM motion, the Group said: “Members voted in favour of a motion which asked us to consider options to strengthen our animal welfare policies and practices and to consider adopting the BCC. Our board supported and recommended that members vote in favour, which they did, with a fantastic 96% majority, and in response to the favourable vote and our members’ wishes, the board are actioning the asks within the motion.”

A Red Tractor spokesperson said: “Each of these three farms was subject to a regular independent inspection earlier this year and found to comply with Red Tractor core standards.

“Our team have viewed the footage but have not found evidence that supports further investigation.”

A spokesman for 2 Sisters Food Group, which runs the farms, said: “We maintain a zero-tolerance approach to any verifiable welfare 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.”

Other retailers, including Tesco, have also been caught up in the row. Currently, only two UK supermarkets – Waitrose and M&S – have signed up to the BCC; more than 350 businesses overall across the UK and EU – including KFC, Nando’s and Greggs – have made the pledge.