Millions of factory chickens died during the record heatwave as industry whistleblowers claimed little was done to protect them from the deadly temperatures, The independent have learned.
The birds – confined to industrial farm sheds – suffered in temperatures of up to 45C and died slowly of heat exhaustion, it was claimed.
Some large producers made little or no effort to ease the heat stress 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” by the problem and that the scale of the mortality had prompted an investigation by officials.
The temperature in some industrial chicken houses caused the birds to flap and pant as they died, according to witnesses.
The birds’ excrement, which was more than usual due to diarrhea – a warning sign of heat stress – made the sheds even hotter, they said.
A shed worker told The independent that the birds were simply “left to die in the heat” and “written off” as a cost rather than investing in mitigating measures such as better ventilation.
Another, who works for another major producer, described the business there as a “bloodbath” and said that in their view the business could have taken greater steps to help improve animal welfare.
They said they experienced flashbacks from the “sheer scale and stench of the dead bodies” of the chickens that died during the heatwave.
“I often find myself suddenly crying and shaking,” they said.
Among those affected by the industry-wide issue were Moy Park manufacturing sites and Hook 2 Sisters Ltd. Both firms declined to comment and referred The independent to their trade 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 in some poultry flocks.
“The industry has been working closely with Defra and other government agencies to support farmers during this devastating time and to find out how farms can be quickly cleared and birds safely disposed of.”
He added: “Mitigation measures are in place to maintain the health and welfare of birds. As is the case for other industries, we encourage all poultry farmers to promote 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 mortality in UK poultry producers.
In 2019, workers at a Moy Park farm in Kettlethorpe, Lincolnshire reported thousands of bird deaths during a heatwave.
At the time, Moy Park said in a statement that it had “implemented procedures to protect our birds from the extreme heat”.
The scale of the recent bird deaths has led to a joint investigation by an arm’s length agency, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and local authorities.
A Defra spokesperson said in a statement: “It is important that the health and welfare of animals is protected and we are deeply concerned by the recent mortality of chickens.
“The Animal and Plant Health Agency is working to support local authorities in investigating what has happened and in taking appropriate further action.”
Animal rights groups said they were aware of the mass deaths of birds which in recent weeks have on average less space than an A4 sheet of paper to live in.
The extreme weather put pressure on livestock across the UK, several farmers said The independent.
Two said that while some farmers spent a lot of money trying to reduce the damage to animals from extreme heat, others – in some cases larger producers with deeper pockets – did not.
James Mottershead, Poultry Chair of 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 weather. While we have systems on the farm to regulate the temperature inside 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 everything they can to look after their birds in these unprecedented and extreme temperatures.”
Abigail Penny, executive director of the Animal Equality organization, said the latest cases were far from unique and that the factory farm giants failed to prepare to prevent the mass deaths.
“When the rest of the UK ground to a halt, avoiding public transport and the scorching sun, the meat industry was unable to act. This “business as usual” approach in a national emergency left hundreds of thousands of chickens literally boiling to death, she said.
Each chicken suffered a painful, prolonged and completely preventable death, she said, adding: “The sad irony is that animal agriculture is a driving force behind these heat waves and other deadly effects of climate change. The meat industry is a leading cause of overuse of land and water, pollution, deforestation, extinction of species and antibiotic resistance.
“More heat waves are on the cards. How many animals must be boiled alive?”
An RSPCA spokesperson said 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 spokesman added that it was “incredibly upsetting to hear of 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 rearing sheds used for broilers, according to the charity, as the designs are older and ventilation can be poorer.
“Factory operations operate at such speed and with small margins of error that any change, such as high temperatures, can have devastating consequences for animal welfare. This is another reason why we are keen to see a move away from intensive farming practices,” said the RSPCA- spokesperson.
Connor Jackson, executive director of animal rights organization Open Cage, said he had heard about the heat wave’s “carnage”.
“These farms are supposed to have ventilation systems, but they are clearly not enough,” he said.
“Even with better technology, these weak birds will continue to be stuffed into hot metal boxes in the countryside every summer.
“On a typical chicken farm, birds have on average less space than an A4 sheet in the last few weeks. Intensive farming methods like this exist so supermarkets can keep meat as cheap as possible, but customers are not 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 the heat and the countless other welfare problems forced on them for cheap meat.”
Hook 2 Sisters is shared ownership of 2 Sisters Food Group Ltd according to Companies’ House. 2 Sisters Food Group website lists a number of major supermarkets as customers 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 the Co-op, Ocado and Sainsbury’s declined to comment, referring The independent to the British Poultry Council (BPC).
A Waitrose spokesperson said it was not supplied by Hook 2 Sisters and while Moy Park processes some of its chicken, the inspection processes for farms in its supply chains showed no indication of welfare concerns.