Chicken ‘among the worst’ meat you can eat: Tesco linked to poultry horror story

Chicken is the nation’s favourite meat. But it’s not the lean, green, healthy meat it has been touted to be, according to a new report from the Soil Association

Worse still, Brits have no idea about the scale of industrial chicken production across England and Wales – and ‘artificially’ cheap supermarket chicken is fuelling intensification.

A staggering billion meat chickens are reared for consumption in the UK each year. This has been growing at the rate of one million birds per month since 2014. 

Now, intensive farming accounts for a staggering 95% of the chicken we eat.

“Few people realise that industrial chicken production might be the most ethically bankrupt and environmentally destructive business in the UK,” says Soil Association’s head of food policy, Rob Percival.

“It’s gobsmacking, a horror story that is impossible to sustain… Enough is enough – we need to stop building intensive poultry units, and help farmers to exit this damaging industry.” 

Screenshot of Intensive chicken farming
Inside an IPU | Stop Killing Our Rivers Report | Soil Association

Fowl play: what you’re really eating

A chicken wrap is the easy lunchtime choice if you’re calorie counting; it doesn’t get much healthier than chicken, brown rice and broccoli according to many fitness plans; and from an environmental perspective, chicken has the lowest carbon footprint of all meat. Win-Win-Win.

Except it’s not. What’s more, 80% of Britons have no idea what’s really going on behind the scenes of the ‘Industrial Processing Units’ (IPUs) where the vast majority of our chickens are reared.

The Soil Association report reveals that IPUs hold up to 40,000 chickens in each shed.

The average chicken reared for meat in this way lives a little over a month:

“They grow to maturity within a matter of weeks, causing them leg and heart conditions and are often crowded in indoor facilities with little natural light. At slaughter weight, these fast-growing birds are often unable to support their own weight, losing the ability to walk.”

The report reveals that although 20 million meat chickens are slaughtered every week, many do not survive to slaughter.

In a three-year period between 2016 and 2019, more than 61 million were rejected for processing at slaughterhouses due to diseases and defects. Thousands of birds also die or are euthanised due to disease or injury.

Those that have survived are likely to have been administered with preventative antibiotics due to spread of disease from being reared in such close confinement. 

This leads to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans as well as animals. As such, it is undermining our ability to cure life-threatening infections in people.

River Wye Pollution sign
Credit: The Soil Association

Chicken sh*t: The environmental issue with industrial chicken farming

Our health is being directly impacted. But, the ecosystems on which we depend are also being threatened. 

“When you look at the full spectrum of environmental impacts associated with poultry production, industrial systems are among the worst,” says Percival.

A mere 14% of UK rivers are deemed to be of ‘good ecological status’.

While this is in part due to very visible sewage and plastic pollution, phosphate pollution is the most common reason rivers fail to meet this status. It is linked directly to chicken feed and the resultant chicken manure, according to the ‘Stop Killing our Rivers’ report. 

The report focuses on the River Wye (rising as the Afon Gwy in Wales), which flows for 155 miles from the Cambrian Mountains in mid-Wales to the Severn Estuary in the west of England. In this catchment, a concentration of chicken IPUs house 20 million chickens. Their muck is the leading cause of “dead zones”, causing the suffocation of plants and starvation of wildlife.  

As a result, the Wye has been described as “very close to ecological collapse” and downgraded to “unfavourable-declining” status. 

Local people have described a tipping point in the last five years, with favoruite river beaches covered in green slime, which is smelly and frightening.

This is despite the fact The Wye is a designated Special Area of Conservation, that is meant to be protected by national law. 

Hidden in plain sight | IPU | Image: Lizzie Goldstock

The UK chicken capital

The report focuses on the Wye as the chicken capital of the UK. But, the authors are clear ecosystems are likely to be in decline in other areas where poultry units are concentrated.   

In 2024, Compassion in World Farming mapped the number of indoor-reared meat chickens across counties.

Their research found there are nearly 32 million meat chickens in Lincolnshire, nearly 22 million in Shropshire, nearly 21 million in Norfolk, nearly 19 million in Herefordshire, and nearly 11 million in Yorkshire and Suffolk.

County Tyrone in Northern Ireland farms more than eight million meat chickens. Plus, there are more than five million in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire and Powys in Wales. 

Poison Poultry: Tesco’s Finest

The Soil Association is clear: “There is no way for the UK to farm one billion birds in a nature-friendly manner.”

But, they say, it’s not farmers who are to blame – or who are even the main benefactors of this system.

“Farmers aren’t really the powerful actors in this situation, it’s the processor who holds all the cards along with the retailers who are buying the product,” stresses Percival.

The three largest poultry meat companies in the UK are Moy Park, 2 Sisters Food Group and Avara Foods. 

They control the whole supply chain, providing the chicks and feed and then slaughtering and processing the meat. Cargill, the largest privately owned company in the US by revenue, supplies a lot of this feed. Plus, they own Avara. 

Avara is reported to be Tesco’s primary fresh chicken supplier.

Following a £35 million expansion of Cargill’s (now Avara’s) processing plant in Hereford and a new 2013 contract with Tesco, 93 new intensive poultry units were given permission to establish in Herefordshire.

So, what can we do?

The report makes multiple suggestions for practical actions that can be taken. This includes calling for supermarkets like Tesco to stop buying cheap chicken and fuelling demand.

In addition to this it says:

“It is ultimately the responsibility of government to ensure that farmers have the security and opportunities they need to invest in a greener future… It is also the responsibility of government to rein in the corporate actors benefitting from unsustainable production.”

You can sign their petition here.

And in the meantime, we can take responsibility for our choices, too. Informed about the horrors of chicken production we can all choose to eat less and better meat.

About the author

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera is the founder and chief purpose officer at Live Frankly. She has been writing for mainstream publications for 10 years, specialising in sustainability and ethics since 2014.

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