Footage reportedly showing severe animal suffering on a Dorset chicken farm has been released by leading international animal protection organization Animal Equality.
Animal Equality investigators say they visited Walston Poultry Farm (East Down site), near Blandford Forum, four times between January and March 2018.
The farm supplies Noble Foods' for its 'Big & Fresh' eggs line - which is stocked by major UK retailers including Tesco, Asda and Morrisons.
Noble Foods - the UK's largest egg producer – operates multiple brands including Big & Fresh (eggs from caged hens) and the free-range Happy Egg Company. It is the subject of an ongoing campaign by The Humane League UK due to welfare concerns.
The footage shows chickens locked in 'colony cages' stacked seven tiers high - with 80,000 hens in each giant shed.
Many birds are shown suffering from severe feather loss - some nearly bald - with red, raw skin. Investigators found dead birds left in cages with the living, some being cannibalized; and birds with visible wounds from being pecked by cage mate.
They also noted that dead birds were left lying on walkways next to cages with the living, and tubs holding dozens of dead birds left in the sheds overnight.
Most seriously, Animal Equality alleges that a hidden camera left in place for four days reveals that caged hens were only checked-on once in this time by farm staff.
According to the organization, this is a breach of The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007, which states that 'all hens must be inspected by the owner or other person responsible for the hens at least once a day'.
Footage from the farm. (Video: Animal Equality)
Dr Toni Shephard, UK Director of Animal Equality, said: "The pitiless practice of locking hens inside crowded cages inevitably leads to the frail, featherless birds and high mortality that we found on this farm.
"But the failure to even check on these poor, helpless hens once a day – as the law requires – shows complete disregard for them as living, feeling animals with fundamental needs.
"Consumers paying a premium for Happy Eggs will be horrified to learn they are indirectly supporting these cruel cages used on Noble Foods' other farms. It is time for Noble to go cage-free across all of its brands."
A statement from Noble Foods said: "Noble Foods takes the welfare of poultry on farms supplying the company very seriously.
"The egg industry and its customers require companies to be stringently checked by regular independent auditing procedures including spot checks via unannounced visits.
"All sites supplying Noble Foods are fully compliant with UK Government and European regulations on welfare of poultry.
"Having seen the report produced by Animal Equality, relating to our contract producer ‘Walston Poultry’ with whom we have a long-standing relationship, we have immediately launched an internal investigation and audit of the site highlighted."
It added: "Separately, the farm will be visited, without notice, by the British Egg Industry Council responsible for the Lion Code of Practice, the officially approved scheme requiring egg producers to maintain the highest possible welfare standards and environmental controls.
"Our investigation into this matter is underway and Noble Foods remains committed and vigilant in demanding the highest standards from all its suppliers."
A spokesperson for Watson Poultry Farm told PBN that the company 'has no comment to make at the moment'.
Animal Equality has sent a dossier of footage, photographs and written evidence to Dorset Trading Standards which is charged with investigating on-farm welfare, as well as to the British Egg Industry Council which runs the Lion Code.