Millions of factory farm chickens died during the record-breaking heatwave as industry whistle-blowers claimed little was done to protect them from the lethal temperatures, The Independent has learnt.
The birds – confined to industrial farm sheds – suffered in temperatures of up to 45C and died slowly of heat exhaustion, it was alleged.
Some large producers made little or no effort to ease the pressure of the heat on the animals, the insiders said on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was “deeply concerned” about the issue and that the sheer scale of the mortalities had prompted an investigation by officials.
The temperature in some industrial chicken sheds left birds flapping and panting as they died, according to witnesses.
The birds’ excrement, of which there was more than usual due to diarrhoea – a warning sign of heat distress – made the sheds even hotter, they said.
One shed worker told The Independent that the birds were simply “left to die in the heat” and “written off” as a cost rather than invest in mitigation measures such as better ventilation.
A second, who works at a different major producer, described the operations there as “carnage” and said that, in their view, the business could have taken greater steps to help improve animal welfare.
They said they were experiencing flashbacks from the “sheer scale and stink of the dead bodies” of the chickens that died during the heatwave.
“I often find that I just suddenly start crying and shaking,” they said.
Among those affected by the industry-wide problem were understood to be Moy Park production sites and Hook 2 Sisters Ltd. Both firms declined to comment and referred The Independent to their industry body, the British Poultry Council (BPC).
Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the BPC, said in a written statement: “Unfortunately extreme temperatures have led to very high mortality events in some poultry flocks.
“Industry have worked closely with Defra and other government agencies to support farmers at this devastating time and establish how farms can be quickly cleared and birds safely disposed of.”
He added: “Mitigating measures exist to maintain the health and welfare of birds. As is the case for other industries, we are urging all poultry keepers to advance these measures to cope with extraordinary weather conditions in the longer term.”
However, it is not the first time that hot weather has caused mass mortalities at UK-based poultry producers.
In 2019, workers at a Moy Park farm in Kettlethorpe, Lincolnshire, reported thousands of bird fatalities during a heatwave.
At that time, Moy Park said in a statement that it had “implemented procedures to help protect our birds against the extreme heat”.
The scale of the recent bird deaths has prompted a joint investigation from an arms-length body the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and local government.
A Defra spokesperson said in a statement: “It is vital the health and welfare of animals are protected, and we are deeply concerned about recent chicken mortalities.
“The Animal and Plant Health Agency is working to support local authorities in investigating what took place and in taking any appropriate further action.”
Animal-rights organisations said they were aware of the mass deaths among birds that in their final weeks have on average less space than an A4 sheet of paper to live in.
The extreme weather placed pressure on livestock across the UK, several farmers told The Independent.
Two said that while some farmers spent heavily on trying to lessen the harm to animals from extreme heat, others – in some cases larger producers with deeper pockets – did not.
James Mottershead, poultry board chair at the National Farmers’ Union said: “As poultry producers, our number one priority is always the health and welfare of our birds.
“Just like other sectors and industries, we have faced extraordinary record-breaking weather. While we have systems on farm to regulate the temperature inside of poultry houses the recent extreme weather has overwhelmed some of them.
“It is truly devastating to witness any bird mortality and farmers continue to do all they can to look after their birds during these unprecedented and extreme temperatures.”
Abigail Penny, executive director of the Animal Equality organisation, said the latest cases were far from unique, and that the industrial farm giants failed to prepare to prevent the mass deaths.
“As the rest of the UK ground to a halt, avoiding public transport and the scorching sun, the meat industry failed to act. This ‘business as usual’ approach in a national emergency caused hundreds of thousands of chickens to quite literally cook to death,” she said.
Each chicken suffered a painful, prolonged and totally preventable death, she said, adding: “The sad irony is that animal agriculture is a driving force behind these heatwaves and other deadly effects of climate change. The meat industry is a leading cause of land and water overuse, pollution, deforestation, species extinction and antibiotic resistance.
“More heatwaves are on the cards. How many animals have to boil alive?”
An RSPCA spokesperson said that anyone who fails to meet the needs of animals in their care could face criminal action in court following an investigation by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).
The spokesperson added that it was “incredibly upsetting to hear about the deaths of these birds – all animals are sentient beings who deserve to be protected from pain and suffering”.
Such mass mortality events are much more likely in intensive farming sheds used for broiler chickens, according to the charity, as the designs are older and ventilation may be poorer.
“Factory farming operates with such speed and with small margins for error that any change, such as soaring temperatures, can have devastating impacts on animal welfare. This is another reason why we are keen to see a move away from intensive farming practices,” the RSPCA spokesperson said.
Connor Jackson, chief executive of the Open Cages animal-rights organisation, said he had heard of the heatwave “carnage”.
“These farms are supposed to have ventilation systems, but clearly they are not enough,” he said.
“Even with better technology, these weak birds will continue to be crammed into hot metal boxes in the countryside every summer.
“On a typical chicken farm, birds have less space on average than an A4 sheet of paper in their final weeks. Intensive farming practices like this exist so supermarkets can keep meat as cheap as possible, but customers aren’t told even these most basic facts.
“Until the big UK retailers sign the Better Chicken Commitment and move away from intensive farming practices, millions of animals will continue to suffer from the heat and the myriad other welfare problems forced upon them for cheap meat.”
Hook 2 Sisters is part-owned by 2 Sisters Food Group Ltd according to Companies’ House. 2 Sisters Food Group’s website lists a host of major supermarkets as clients on its website including Aldi, Asda, Co-op, KFC, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, and Tesco. Several did not respond to a request for comment, while Co-op, Ocado, and Sainsbury’s declined to comment and referred The Independent to the British Poultry Council (BPC).
A spokesperson for Waitrose said it was not supplied by Hook 2 Sisters, and while Moy Park processes some of its chicken, its oversight processes of farms in its supply chains showed no indication of any welfare concerns.