The animals are in a pitiful condition. Many are confined to tiny pens, struggling to move; some look terrified, others have ulcerated lesions or cuts on their flesh. The corpse of a piglet rots alongside live sows. Maggots swarm over its decomposing flesh. A number of the animals are suffering from infections.
Video footage taken inside the premises of one of the largest pork suppliers to Tesco, the supermarket giant, has revealed conditions described as 'appalling' by animal rights campaigners.
The scenes were uncovered at Cherry Tree Farm in Attlesborough, which is part of the giant Bowes of Norfolk group. Bowes supplies thousands of kilograms of pork, bacon and processed meat to Tesco each year.
The video was shot in secret by animal rights group Vegetarians International Voice for Animals, Viva, as part of its long-running investigation into pig farming. Although there is no evidence of the company breaking any legal welfare guidelines, the scenes show the brutal reality of intensive pig farming.
Pregnant sows are held for weeks at a time in small farrowing crates - narrow metal cages only inches wider than the animal. The sows are unable to turn and can only stand up, lie down or suckle their piglets once they are born. The crates are designed to maximise productivity, and ultimately drive down the cost of meat.
Campaigners, who say their use leads to severe stress and abnormal behaviour in pigs, are calling for them to be outlawed. Pressure groups argue the conditions show that Tesco's claims that its pork products come from animals enjoying a high standard of welfare are a 'deception'.
Alistair Currie, campaigns officer at Viva, said: 'The scenes inside Bowes pig farm are bad even by the low standards of intensive pig farms and provided clear evidence of animals suffering appallingly. Bowes are leading suppliers of pork to one of Britain's top supermarket chains and claim to place emphasis on animal welfare; they should not therefore be rearing pigs in conditions like this for sale to the public.'
The findings will prove embarrassing to both Bowes and Tesco. On its website, Bowes boasts about holding RSPCA Freedom Food animal welfare accreditation, which is supposed to ensure that animals are reared free from discomfort, pain, injury and disease and have the freedom to express normal behaviour free of distress. It turns out that only some Bowes facilities are backed by the RSPCA and Cherry Tree Farm has not won accreditation.
Trevor Jarvis, chief executive of Bowes, who has examined the video, defended the standards of animal welfare at his farm. He said: 'We care immensely about the pigs at our farm ... The sores on the pigs were because the animals were ill, but they were being treated with medication. Sadly the pigs did not recover and were shot the next day.'
Jarvis said the film was made in August on one of the hottest days of the year and therefore the pigs had been wallowing in mud to get cool, as they do in the wild. He said the animals were startled by the intruder at night shining lights into their eyes. Jarvis said the dead animals were stillborn. He said the sows had given birth at night, and the farmhands had not had a chance to remove the carcasses.
He did accept that the farm was 'out of order' for allowing maggots to eat the flesh of one carcass. He said the farmhand responsible had been given a verbal warning.
Tesco was also shown the evidence and launched an inquiry. A spokesman said: 'We expect the highest standards from our suppliers and they are audited regularly to ensure these are met. We take allegations of this type extremely seriously and fully investigated them, as did the RSPCA. Neither Tesco nor the RSPCA found any animal welfare problems, and we will continue to monitor them to ensure high standards are maintained.'
The RSPCA confirmed they had since visited the farm and are satisfied the problems have been dealt with.
According to campaigners, up to 95 per cent of the 16 million pigs reared each year for meat are factory-farmed, with many kept in confined farrowing crates. Bowes, which has been involved in meat production for over 40 years, is one of Britain's largest suppliers of pork, selling meat for use in pies, sausages and processed meat.
The company, which employs more than 600 people and has an annual turnover of over £30 million, is Tesco's major UK-based pork supplier, providing pork cuts for all of the chain's 'Finest' range, processing 50 per cent of its 'Organic' and 'Tender Select' ranges and a substantial part of its 'Standard' range, as well as providing meat for sale at the chain's over-the-counter service.