Employees of one of the biggest commercial egg producers have been caught selling starving, maimed and sick chickens to the public at steeply discounted prices.
Some were in such poor condition that their wings had become infected with gangrene, according to the national council of the SPCA (NSPCA), which said on Tuesday it would press charges against Nulaid.
The company is owned by food giant Pioneer Foods, which admitted on Tuesday that a “mistake” had been made and that standards had been breached. It said some of the employees involved had been fired.
The NSPCA said about 1 558 chickens were slaughtered under its supervision on February 26, after it obtained a court order authorising the humane killing.
Grace de Lange, the NSPCA’s spokeswoman, said they planned to charge Nulaid under the Animal Protection Act for maiming the chickens and causing unnecessary suffering.
She said inspectors had been horrified to find them in a terrible condition during a routine inspection on a Nulaid distribution outlet in Phokeng, North West last month.
From the company’s own records, the NSPCA discovered that in less than a month, 1 737 chickens had either been dead on arrival at the outlet, or had had to be “emergency-slaughtered” because of their severe injuries.
It was also discovered that Nulaid employees had been selling injured and sick chickens to the public at the steeply discounted price of R21 each. The chickens are known as end-of-lay hens as they had reached the end of their economically productive life as egg layers.
De Lange said last month’s incident had not been the first, as the council had been sending warnings to Nulaid since 2011 to change their practices.
Hennie Lourens, the general manager of Quantum Foods, the Pioneer division that includes Nulaid, said the company was taking steps to remedy matters.
“We did make a mistake; there was a breach of our standards. We’ve taken decisive action against the individuals involved. Some individuals who were responsible were fired and some received warnings,” he said. “We’re engaging the NSPCA and are continuing discussions on how to move forward on a constructive basis.”
While applauding the NSCPA’s decision to charge Nulaid, Louise van der Merwe, representing Compassion in World Farming, a non-governmental organisation aiming to put an end to cruel factory farming, said it would be better to press charges against Pioneer Foods.
The charges, she said, would be for “the suffering of all the millions of Nulaid hens who spend their lives in impossibly tight spaces in battery cages”.
Van der Merwe said she had laid a criminal complaint against Nulaid’s predecessor, Lemoenkloof Plase, in 1991 for allegedly violating the act by, among other things, “maiming” hens (through de-beaking) and by causing them unnecessary suffering at cull outlets.
However, after 18 months of deliberation the State had refused to prosecute on grounds that there was no reasonable chance of success.
Van der Merwe also claimed the court file had “mysteriously disappeared”.
Pioneer’s spokesman, Lulu Khumalo, said this was not the first time that complaints had been made against Nulaid.
“Accordingly, Nulaid is taking this very seriously … and will certainly be working very hard to ensure there is no repeat of this.”
She said the veterinarian responsible for Nulaid’s local operations would ensure that the company’s culling operations were “welfare-compliant in terms of the Sapa (South African Poultry Association) code of practice”.
Asked to comment on the possible health risks of eating sick chickens, Dr Ivor Funnel, a gastroenterologist at St Augustine’s Hospital, said the symptoms would include diarrhoea and vomiting.