Ducks sold by Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco by were brutally hung from shackle lines and dragged by their heads, necks, and wings while still alive in a series of violent breaches of guidelines caught on camera.
Workers were filmed rough-handling ducks, ramming them with force into the shackles.
Several workers were seen yelling heatedly at one another, which experts say led to their aggressively manhandling the ducks – many of which are thought to be destined for freezing ahead of Christmas dinners.
The Co-op suspended Gressingham as a supplier after seeing the footage, and others said they were launching investigations.
Food standards chiefs are to investigate the allegations against the company, which is the UK’s largest duck producer, killing around eight million birds a year.
Undercover footage reveals ducks being grabbed roughly by workers from crates, hung upside down and sent along shackle lines into an electrical waterbath, according to the Animal Justice Project (AJP) group, which filmed inside the slaughterhouse.
Use of shackles is legal, but government farm animal welfare advisers called in 2009 for live shackling to be phased out, saying it “may cause considerable pain and distress”.
But rough handling, causing birds distress and pulling them by their body parts all break codes on animal welfare at slaughter – which is illegal.
The investigators claim they saw “a staggering” 15 breaches of EU, UK government and Red Tractor guidelines in just one day at the Suffolk-based abattoir.
Gressingham Duck said the footage mostly showed a “well-run, high-welfare poultry processing plant” with “no clear evidence of abuse or neglect”.
Sales of duck and geese had been predicted to rise this Christmas with the “rule of six” meaning smaller family gatherings.
AJP claims ducks arrived at the slaughterhouse with huge sores and in filthy crates.
“Workers were caught on camera brutalising and rough-handling ducks, ramming them with force into shackles, which is likely to cause extra pain and injury to their delicate legs. Ducks were also filmed being grabbed and dragged by their heads or necks, one leg and wings across crates. Another breach of guidelines,” said spokeswoman Claire Palmer.
The birds are seen in the video sometimes still flapping as they are sent to an electrical waterbath – practices the group says are condemned by UK and European authorities. “Shackling and involuntary inversion appeared to cause the ducks significant distress,” said Ms Palmer.
Once on the shackles, video footage showed some birds were left hanging for two periods well over the legal time limit of two minutes: once for at least 14 minutes and once for almost 12 minutes, investigators say.
The European Food Safety Authority, as well as the Farm Animal Welfare Council, has urged that live shackling and waterbath stunning be replaced as soon as possible “to spare birds from severe welfare consequences”.
The Food Standards Agency said it would seize Gressingham’s CCTV to inspect it.
Guidelines say people must not drag animals by the head, ears, tail or handle them in a way that would cause pain or suffering; birds being shackled must be relaxed and not touch each other or be distressed, and poultry must not get a shock before touching a waterbath.
Alick Simmons, former UK government deputy chief vet and former Food Standards Agency veterinary director, said: “The video shows a cramped hanging-on bay and a slaughter line being run too quickly for the available space, resulting in the ducks being frequently handled inhumanely and without due care.
“Operatives argue with each other; they are distracted and hence take poor care.
“Shackled birds are allowed to touch each other meaning that birds further up the line will receive pre-stun non-lethal shocks.”
Ms Palmer said: “The irony is that the most water that Gressingham ducks will ever experience is when they hit the electric waterbath inside this slaughterhouse.
“Consumers need to know that their choices in the run-up to Christmas and beyond can have a huge impact on other animals’ lives.”
Last December The Independent reported how ducks at a Gressingham farm were slung onto the floor “like trash” after having their necks broken and ducklings were denied open water and flailed in distress on their backs.
At the time, the company said: “The welfare of our birds is an absolute priority. We work to the highest standards in hygiene, biosecurity and animal welfare,” and that there was no evidence of birds being left to die in pain.
A spokesperson said on Wednesday: “The majority of the footage shows processes indicative of a well-run, high welfare poultry processing plant.
“There is no clear evidence of abuse or neglect by Gressingham staff in this footage.
“There are actions that are not representative of the high standards expected of our factory. They will be fully investigated in conjunction with external auditors and the appropriate actions taken to ensure immediate improvements.
“Gressingham Foods are registered under Red Tractor, meaning that they are subject to full independent audit and defined standards of production.
“The welfare of our birds is an absolute priority. We work to the highest standards in hygiene, bio-security and animal welfare.
“All staff responsible for the welfare of our birds have the necessary training with regular updates for continuous improvement.”
A Red Tractor spokesperson said: “Protecting animal health and welfare is one of our top priorities and we take any allegations of breaches to our standards very seriously. As soon as we were made aware of the footage, we launched an immediate investigation to substantiate the claims and to review the behaviours seen.
“Corrective action will be taken where necessary.”
The Co-op said it had suspended the company while it investigated.
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “We are urgently investigating this issue with Gressingham Foods.”
An Asda spokesman said: “We have comprehensive animal welfare standards in place that we expect all suppliers to uphold and are speaking with the supplier about these allegations.”
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We require high animal welfare standards from all brands sold at Tesco. These claims are deeply concerning and as soon as we became aware we immediately launched an investigation.”
The Independent has also asked the other supermarkets supplied to comment.