An animal welfare charity has taken the government to court over intensive poultry breeding, ITV News' Neil Connery reports
A legal challenge to improve the lives of cheap supermarket chickens has been launched against the government.
Around 90% of one billion birds raised for meat in the UK are dubbed as 'frankenchickens' - and go from egg to slaughter in 35 days, according to The Humane League.
Raised at an unnatural pace, some 400% faster than chickens would normally grow, the giant birds gain around 100g in weight a day which leaves them destined for short and painful lives.
They can reach a weight of 2.2kg in 35 days – 12 weeks faster than 50 years ago – while many are kept in unsanitary conditions.The process leaves the birds with numerous health conditions.
Conditions are so poor that 70% of 'broiler chickens' die before they make it to the slaughterhouse, the animal rights charity says.
The league argues that the growth of 'frankenchickens' breaches welfare of farmed animals regulations.
Regulations currently state that animals can be kept for farming purposes if there isn't a detrimental effect on their health or welfare.
But government agency Defra has argued that it has no policy that condones or permits the use of 'frankenchickens'.
TV personality Lucy Watson, writer Benjamin Zephaniah and naturalists Chris Packman and Megan McCubbin have thrown their support behind the Humane League's legal challenge.
Joining other supporters at the High Court, Benjamin Zephaniah said: “Chickens are conscious animals, who like to play, forage and explore.
"Decades of selective breeding have turned them into monstrous frankenchickens who can barely carry their own weight, and who lie in crowded barns, being burned by their waste. We should not be treating animals like this.”
Charities have been campaigning for food companies to commit to ending the use of fast-growing Frankenchickens by asking them to sign up for the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC), which demands slower-growing breeds, more space, natural light and enrichment, less painful slaughter methods and third-party auditing.
It is hoped that the legal battle will change how chickens are bred in the UK
KFC, Nando’s, Greggs, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose are among more than 350 companies in the UK and EU to have committed to the BCC.
Sean Gifford, Managing Director of The Humane League UK, said: “The future of billions of animals hangs in the balance. I hope that fast-growing Frankenchickens, who are born and die in grim factories across the country, get the help they desperately deserve.
"Fast-growing chickens are trapped in their own bodies and are victimised by constant pain and illness. We want a future where animals are treated with compassion and respect. That is a future where Frankenchickens no longer exist.”
Edward Brown KC, representing The Humane League, said the charities and the Government disagreed on the interpretation of animal welfare law, specifically one paragraph.
It reads: “Animals may only be kept for farming purposes if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of their genotype or phenotype, that they can be kept without any detrimental effect on their health or welfare.”
Mr Brown said: “There does appear to be a legal uncertainty, possibly a legal no-man’s-land, and the consequences of that is that the policies, practices and enforcement approach of the secretary of state are all based on an anterior legal error as to what the legal obligations are.”
Defra argues that fast-growing chicken breeds are not inherently condemned to suffer health problems and that there is no scientific consensus saying so.
A spokesperson said: “We are proud to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.
“All farm animals are protected by robust animal health and welfare legislation. This sets out detailed requirements on how farmed livestock, including meat chickens, must be kept.
“It is also an offence to cause any captive animal unnecessary suffering.”
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.