Hundreds of thousands of chickens to be culled after Covid disruption
At least 400,000 chickens are being culled in the UK as Covid-19 infections disrupt slaughterhouse routines. About 300,000 birds are due to be culled in England and 110,000 have been culled in Scotland.
Chickens that cannot be slaughtered for food are usually gassed with CO2 and their bodies rendered for fat and other animal byproducts. They do not enter the food chain.
The UK rears and slaughters about 20 million birds a week, according to the British Poultry Council (BPC). About 95% are chickens and the majority are processed through a few large slaughterhouses, each with a capacity of about 2 million birds a week. Production loss at even one large slaughterhouse can have significant impacts along the food chain and create welfare problems, the BPC said.
Millions of US farm animals were culled on-farm earlier this summer after the closure of meat plants because of coronavirus outbreaks among staff that cut the country’s slaughtering capacity for cows and pigs by 25% and 40% respectively.
In England, about half of the staff at Banham Poultry in Norfolk have had to self-isolate after 75 staff tested positive for coronavirus. The plant plans “to humanely cull 300,000 birds using a gas system”, said its director, Blaine Van Rensburg, in a statement.
Asked about the risk of further culls, Rensburg said: “Given we don’t know how long this current situation will last, we won’t be speculating on how many others will need to be humanely culled.”
Rensburg denied earlier reports that Banham had culled about 7,000 birds. “No birds have been culled at our site to date,” he said. “We are already diverting a quarter of a million birds to other suppliers and will continue to do so where possible.”
In Scotland, a statement from poultry slaughterer Coupar Angus, which is owned by the 2 Sisters Food Group, confirmed that 110,000 birds had been culled. The slaughterhouse kills “almost one million chickens a week and is the only facility of its type in Scotland,” it said.
There are two standard methods for gas poultry culls in the UK: whole house gassing and containerised gassing. The first involves filling the sheds where chickens live with CO2. The second involves putting the birds in specialised containers that are brought to the farm. The containers are filled with CO2 and sometimes other gasses such as argon.
“Whole house slaughter is very rare, the sheds are not designed for it,” said Penny Middleton, the poultry policy manager at the National Farmers Union Scotland. “The containerised option is more controllable and would be done by someone like Livetec Systems, an approved depopulator, according to welfare regulations,” she said.
No one interviewed would comment on how long gassed chickens take to die, other than to say it was legal and humane.
The Coupar Angus statement said the chickens were “humanely dispatched in line with legislation” and that culls were supervised by the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency and an independent veterinary officer.
The statement said that although last week’s Covid-19 related decision to “cease production has brought many upsetting consequences” it managed “to successfully process the large majority of birds from Scotland” by sending them to other slaughterhouses in its UK network. The factory was due to reopen on Monday and no further culls are expected, it said.
Middleton said the Coupar Angus plant reopening might take a while to get up to full speed, but that she was not expecting any further culls in Scotland.
UK has ‘little spare’ slaughtering capacity
Peter Stevenson, a policy advisor with UK welfare organisation Compassion in World Farming, said the culls highlighted a food system failure. “Today’s chickens have been bred to grow so quickly that if they are left to continue growing after reaching their slaughter weight, many will become so lame they can barely walk, while others will die of heart disease.”
The BPC’s chief executive, Richard Griffiths, said in a statement that because UK poultry processing was so efficient, with little spare capacity, losing a large slaughterhouse “will not only interrupt our national food supply, create shortages and job losses at a time when we can least afford it, but also result in bird welfare challenges on a significant scale”/
He said coronavirus outbreaks at meat plants demonstrated “that no amount of preparation and vigilance can guarantee complete protection against Covid-19. We have to prioritise the health of people in our community, but we also need to safeguard food supply and the welfare of our animals”.
The BPC was working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) “and other relevant authorities to ensure reasonable steps are put in place to minimise welfare issues and maintain food supply”, he said. “We must ensure that poultry meat plants compromised by a Covid-19 outbreak are able to maintain throughput where possible, even if it means having skeleton staff onsite.”
Defra did not confirm chicken cull numbers but said birds “would be culled using gas … in line with the rules on protecting animal welfare at the time of killing.”
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