British Lion has partially suspended Noble Foods supplier Walston Poultry Farm from its assurance scheme pending retraining following reports of animal welfare violations.
Animal rights group Animal Equality installed hidden cameras at Walston Poultry Farm in central Dorset from January to March this year, and sent investigators to inspect conditions at the farm.
Welfare concerns identified included birds suffering from severe feather loss, while other birds displayed peck wounds inflicted by their cage mates. Dead birds were seen left in cages to be cannibalised by remaining animals.
The investigation found at one point farm workers did not visit the sheds for up to four days, in violation of legislation set out in The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations (2007), which states “all hens must be inspected by the owner or other person responsible for the hens at least once a day”.
“It is clear that there was a breakdown in what is expected of the stockmen managing these particular houses. We have therefore suspended two houses while retraining takes place and practices are put in place to ensure that there can be no repetition,” said British Lion CEO Mark Williams.
“We will only allow the houses to re-enter the Lion scheme when it has demonstrated practices have improved significantly and, even then, only under special measures which will include an ongoing programme of regular, unannounced audits.”
British Lion added it had immediately sent independent auditors to the site on hearing the news, though it did not condone the actions of Animal Equality breaking into the poultry houses.
Walston keeps in the region of 500,000 hens producing 140 million eggs per year under Noble Foods’ Big & Fresh brand, which is sold in Asda, Morrisons and Tesco. Retailers responded to concerns via the British Retail Consortium.
“Our members take their responsibilities to animal welfare very seriously and work closely with trusted suppliers so that high welfare standards are upheld,” said the BRC. “They have strict processes in place and will thoroughly investigate any evidence of non-conformity to ensure that any problems are immediately addressed.”
It comes as the Humane League took its campaign against Noble Foods up a notch to coincide with National Poultry Day yesterday (19 March), with activists launching a five-day protest outside Noble’s London offices. The group was protesting against the 4.3 million hens kept in cages by Noble suppliers, equal to 38% of its flock. Noble’s current policy is to go 70% cage-free by 2020, the group claimed - a commitment that was not “strong enough”.
Noble Foods did not respond to requests for comment.