Warning: story contains content some readers may find distressing, and offensive language.
Undercover footage appearing to show workers from an RSPCA-approved company kicking and stamping on hens has seen it suspended from the charity's farm animal welfare scheme - and reported to government investigators.
The footage has been released by animal rights group The Animal Justice Project, and shows workers known as "catcher gangs" from Norfolk-based abattoir AD Harvey working at four farms, including Kettleby Farm in Leicestershire. Catcher gangs round up hens who have come to the end of their natural egg-laying life for transport to abattoirs, with the birds typically used for cheap meat, soups, and stock.
The video shows workers kicking and throwing hens from their perches by their tailfeathers, even striking them with objects as they made their way through the facility, leaving birds lying injured or dead in their wake.
Workers were caught breaching RSPCA guidelines by carrying large amounts of hens to crates by just one legs, before shoving them in and slamming the crates closed - sometimes on their wings and heads. Catchers filmed by the group also appeared to be aware of their inappropriate methods, with one catcher saying: "It only takes one idiot to just come in here and film what we do... and all the animal rights lot will be down here. They all think chickens walk around in fields, think 20 chickens in a field will feed the nation."
The Animal Justice Project were now calling on the RSPCA to cut all ties with AD Harvey. Spokesperson Claire Palmer said the "appalling" footage showed "indisputable violence" against hens. "The RSPCA must take decisive action - beginning with the permanent severing of ties with AD Harvey and the launch of criminal proceedings against potential law violators."
RSPCA Assured has since suspended AD Harvey while they investigated the alleged abuse. An AD Harvey spokesperson told SWNS that the staff in the footage were no longer employed and their remaining staff were being retrained.
"It is totally unacceptable for any animal to be treated in this way and we have reported this incident to the Animal and Plant Health Agency - an official government body that is fully equipped and resourced to investigate and take action," an RSPCA Assured spokesperson said. "The behaviour in this footage goes against everything RSPCA Assured stands for and falls significantly below the high standards we demand of our members.
"We have suspended the membership of the catching company involved, pending investigation," they added. "This means that the workers in the footage, as well as all other employees of the catching company, cannot work with any animals being raised under the RSPCA Assured scheme."
Of the four farming sites featured in this footage, only one, Kettleby Farm, was RSPCA Assured certified. "We are urgently investigating this farm, as well as the associated transport company and abattoir, and are unable to comment further whilst our enquiries are ongoing," the spokesperson added.
"We take complaints of poor animal welfare about any of our RSPCA Assured members very seriously and would always urge anyone with any concerns to contact us straight away, without delay. This is so that we can immediately investigate, visit the premises and address any welfare issues as a priority."
In a statement issued by AD Harvey, the company told SWNS that the behaviour of their staff had fallen below standards. "AD Harvey have been made aware of a film which was produced, covertly, by an activist working on behalf of an animal rights organisation.
"The edited footage seeks to compare RSPCA Assured standards with what the activist actually witnessed whilst ‘working’ as part of our team at a poultry farm," a spokesperson wrote. "As a result, RSPCA Assured have suspended AD Harvey Catching teams from their scheme."
They said they had viewed the footage, and it "clearly shows some members of the AD Harvey bird catching team acting in a manner which was completely at odds with the standards of animal welfare to which we require our staff to work to... Those staff members are no longer employed by AD Harvey, and all other members of our bird catching staff are being retrained in the correct procedures."
AD Harvey said its partners "totally condemn any breaches of animal welfare legislation" and their teams were trained to deliver a service which ensured that birds are treated with respect and care. "We will work closely with both RSPCA Assured and all of our customers to ensure that our teams act in a professional and caring manner at all times."