Sainsbury’s accused of breaking pledge on chicken welfare

Sainsbury’s has been accused of breaking promises on improving welfare conditions for chickens after it handed back a good practice award.

The animal rights pressure group Compassion in World Farming said Sainsbury’s applied for the group’s “good chicken” award in 2010 and committed to upgrade within five years all its fresh own-label chicken to the RSPCA welfare mark, which involved giving birds more living space and light.

The move was partly a response to campaigns by the chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Eight years on, CIWF says less than a fifth of the chicken Sainsbury’s sells meets the higher welfare standard.

In a letter to the supermarket, the pressure group said it was “appalled that Sainsbury’s had broken its promise”, adding that it was publicly withdrawing the award it gave to Sainsbury’s.

The supermarket said it had chosen to return the award to CIWF, which was linked to the pledge to give birds more space, because it now disagreed with the group’s approach to animal welfare.

However, Fearnley-Whittingstall also told the Guardian the supermarket had backtracked. “As far as I’m concerned, Sainsbury’s has definitely broken its promise on improving welfare for its own brand fresh chickens,” he said.

Judith Batchelar, then director of the Sainsbury’s brand, told the chef’s 2009 documentary Chickens, Hugh and Tesco Too: “We’ve said all the way along that our minimum standard will be the Freedom Food RSPCA standard so all of our birds will meet or exceed that standard.”

“The commitment was to use the Freedom Foods audit,” Fearnley-Whittingstall said. “To say they are able to achieve their welfare promises without reducing stocking density (i.e. giving their chickens more space) is disingenuous, even dishonest. Reduced stocking density is fundamental to the Freedom Food standards for poultry – and these are the standards they promised to match.”

The supermarket claimed it had only ever pledged to be the biggest retailer of Freedom Food, as listed in its latest ethical report, and not to upgrade its entire range. The report pledges that all Sainsbury’s meat, poultry, eggs, game and dairy products “will be sourced from suppliers who adhere to independently verified higher animal health and welfare outcomes”, without making a specific commitment to the RSPCA-backed scheme.

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “Judith’s comments were made almost a decade ago. In the many years that have passed we have become the largest retailer of RSPCA Assured products in the UK and our commitment to animal welfare has not diminished in any way.”

CIWF said other recipients of its good chicken award, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer, had delivered on their commitments.

In its letter to Sainsbury’s, CIWF said: “By going back on its word, Sainsbury’s is consigning millions of chickens every year to life in overcrowded sheds.”