A 'horrific' analysis over the deaths and welfare of fast-growing 'frankenchickens' by a prestigious Scottish agricultural college is supporting a legal challenge over their use, it has been revealed.

Animal welfare campaigners are fighting through the courts to get the genetically engineered fast growing breeds which are sold in food shops across the UK banned because they suffer serious health problems due to the speed of growth.

And there are hopes that if a challenge is successful in England it will be taken up in Scotland.

It has emerged that a key component of the case is a study into the poor state of the animals' health commissioned by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals by Dr Laura Dixon, senior lecturer in animal and veterinary sciences at Scotland's Rural College (SRUC).

The welfare charity is concerned that millions of chickens are being bred to grow at an unnaturally fast rate on factory farms and that the majority are suffering from shocking cruelty with accelerated growth affecting their internal organs.

The RSPCA says that the Scottish research showed that many of the birds - which reach their slaughter weight of approximately 2.2kg in 34 to 36 days - "could be considered as having a life not worth living".

The birds are normally slaughtered when they reach the weight of approximately 2.2kg at between 34 to 36 days. So called 'natural' chickens are typically slaughtered after an average of 100 days.

The trial revealed that unexpected deaths including culls amongst fast growing birds doubled compared to the slower growing chickens.

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Open Cages discovered  chickens that die prematurely as a result of their rapid growth in an investigation in England

In general, the fast growing chickens had significantly poorer health including greater leg, hock and plumage issues and breast muscle disease.

The RSPCA said in its analysis of the trial that it was clear that conventional meat chicken breeding programmes have "serious inherent flaws and lead to poor health and welfare".

It is estimated that the ‘broilers’, are by far the most numerously produced farm animals reared for meat, with more than a billion being slaughtered each year in the UK producing over 1.6m tonnes of meat a year. It is estimated that 94% of the 'broilers' are the faster growing breed that are slaughtered at five to six weeks of age. A domestic chicken typically lives for seven to nine years.

The results of the Scottish trials produced in 2020 involved 1600 birds from four fast and slower growing breeds and were approved by the Animal Welfare and Ethics Review Body of the SRUC.

Any birds found to be unwell were closely monitored and given appropriate veterinary treatment as necessary or, if their welfare had significantly decreased, culled.

The fast-growing chickens were found to be less active – spending less time walking and standing, and more time feeding and sitting. Towards the end of the trial, when the birds were 37 days of age, the slower growing breed spent 51% of the time sitting compared to 71–74% for the fast-growing birds.

They spent less time engaged in "enrichment type" behaviour such as foraging, perching and dust-bathing.

The study found that the so-called frankenchickens were more efficient at converting feed into body weight and, due to being slaughtered at a younger age, more birds can be reared per year within a commercial chicken house which have significant economic benefits.

But the RSPCA said there are significant inefficiencies associated with producing meat from the fast-growing breeds that, if taken into account, would have a considerable impact on the cost of production and could result in higher production costs compared to the rearing of "higher welfare breed".

It also said the study showed that the meat quality was "significantly poorer" amongst the fast-growing birds.

It said the fast-growing chicken production line is a "wasteful and ethically questionable business" with higher numbers of deaths and poorer meat quality "bringing into question the sustainability of this enterprise".

"The welfare impact of poor health on an animal is clear and, depending on the issue and its severity, poor health can result in persistent and significant pain and suffering," the charity said. However, the welfare impact of reduced behavioural expression is less clear, but should not be underestimated as it can have a significant psychological impact. Chickens should be able to behave like chickens, with the ability to exhibit behaviours natural to the species."

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Off the back of the Scottish trial, it said that genetic breeding programmes had to place a much greater emphasis on health and welfare traits.

And the welfare charity said new legislation was urgently required to enforce a meaningful change in broiler genetics to ensure breeding companies are mandated to "prioritise bird health and welfare over performance parameters, such as growth rate".

Dr Dixon in her analysis said that the difference in production costs between the slow and faster growing chickens "may not be that large" when considering the difference in mortality rates.

And she said that breast meat from slower growing birds has been found to be higher in protein and lower in fat levels than in faster growers which it is felt could encourage increased consumer purchasing. She said an increase in public education about the housing, management, behaviour and welfare of broiler chickens "may increase the demand for higher welfare meat which may encourage more producers to enter this market and more sustainable solutions within slower growing production to be investigated".

But one study found that only 3% of chicken consumers surveyed in the USA knew broilers were housed in cage-free systems and only 12% had any knowledge of the availability of slower growing breeds. Animal welfare campaigners who described the analysis as "horrific" are considering their latest moves in legal challenges over the legality of the fast-growing breeds.

Lawyers for The Humane League claim the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra’s) policy on broiler chickens breached the welfare of farmed animals regulations 2007 (Wofar), which state: “Animals may only be kept for farming purposes if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of their genotype or phenotype, that they can be kept without any detrimental effect on their health or welfare.”

It has lost an argument that the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, had erred in law by permitting farmers in England to keep so-called frankenchickens.

In his decision last week, the judge, Sir Ross Cranston, said Ms Coffey, had not "acted contrary to her legal duties" and that she had not "positively authorised or approved unlawful conduct by others".

He added that she had considered the science and accepted that "there may be a higher risk of welfare issues with fast-growing meat chickens, but takes the view that they can be kept without detriment to their welfare since environmental conditions can have an influence on the health and welfare of birds with both fast and slow-growing breeds".

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He said Wofar put the onus on farmers to decide whether “given their genotype or phenotype they can be kept in appropriate conditions without any obvious or deleterious effect on their health or welfare”.

The Humane League, which is now considering an appeal, said the challenges to the way that chickens are bred for slaughter are expected to hit Scotland after the English legal process is complete.

It said a victory in the English case would make launching a Scottish case "much more likely" as there would be a "precedent" based on similar laws and scientific evidence.

It argued that Ms Coffey had unlawfully failed to properly monitor and prosecute farmers who keep them and had ignored the scientific consensus on the suffering they endure.

It argues that by allowing the use of the frankenchickens the government was breaching the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 which set down detailed requirements on how farmed livestock, including chickens should be kept. Similar regulations exist in Scotland under the Welfare of Farmed Animals (Scotland) Regulations 2010.

The RSPCA, which is acting as an intervener in the case - meaning it has joined the litigation - has provided expert testimony based on the Scots trial results.

The Humane League is also campaigning with other groups to get hundreds of companies across the UK including supermarket chains to stop using frankenchickens out of their supply chain.

It says that a million chickens die before slaughter on UK farms every week, excluding bird flu deaths.

Sean Gifford, managing director at The Humane League UK, said: “The court’s decision leaves one billion chickens trapped living short, miserable lives on British farms. If someone treated dogs or cats this way–with routine overcrowding and cruel breeding methods that lead to painful leg deformities, open sores and even heart attacks–they could face years in prison. There’s no way to humanely raise a frankenchicken; a life of illness, suffering and dysfunction is hardcoded into their DNA.

"The public is also the loser here as these types of birds can be fed antibiotics to prevent them dying from such stressful conditions. Health professionals tell us that giving factory farmed animals antibiotics can lead to the creation and spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, posing a direct threat to human health.

"We will continue to fight against the use of frankenchickens at the corporate and legislative level."

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Two weeks ago activists from Open Cages, a charity created to oppose the suffering and exploitation of farmed animals, lodged a protest outside Morrisons supermarket in Partick, Glasgow calling for a ban on frankenchickens over animal welfare concerns.

Leading animal welfare charities want Morrisons and others to sign the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) in order to address the ‘extreme suffering’ faced frankenchickens and linked them to the retailer's basic label chickens.

Connor Jackson, co-founder of Open Cages said: "I fully believe that it's worth bringing a case in Scotland about this. One of the main reasons given for the dismissal of the recent judicial review was that there is allegedly no consensus that fast growing broilers suffer. This is absolutely false and outrageous."

Nearly 400,000 people have signed a petition lodged by TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham petition asking supermarkets to sign up to a Better Chicken Commitment. So far Waitrose and M&S have signed up.

An Open Cages investigation conducted on 2021 involved investigators filmed in four randomly selected farms in England and recorded what they called "the extreme daily suffering" of frankenchickens.

They were found completely or almost unable to walk. Many were filmed with deformed and twisted legs, frantically flapping their wings and collapsing in pain.

One thin bird was seen with its back covered in dried, bloody wounds.

Blackened dead bodies were found left to rot on multiple sites, on one farm forming a pile surrounded by flies.

Hundreds were covered in filth and suffering chemical burns from laying in their own waste.

The group said that conditions were so crowded that in their last weeks, the birds had no more space on average than an A4 sheet of paper each.

A Morrisons spokesman said: "We care deeply about animal welfare. All our chicken is raised to above Red Tractor standards; we are also the only retailer in Europe to ask our fresh chicken suppliers for chickens to be born into the barn in which they will be raised by 2025 - and more than 80% of our fresh chicken already is.

"We actively monitor for any malpractice in our supply chain and we will never tolerate it or look the other way.

"Customers, depending on their budgets, have a choice of free range or enhanced welfare options including our Space to Roam chicken which launched in 2022 and meets all nine of the Better Chicken Commitment principles."

A Defra spokesman said that it welcomed the judge's findings and added: “Farm animals are protected by robust animal health and welfare laws, which include detailed requirements on how they should be kept. We will continue to work with the farming sector to maintain and enhance our high standards.”