Class-action-style claim takes on chicken giant, Avara

A legal claim potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds has been launched by law firm Leigh Day in a bid to compensate thousands of people living in the Wye catchment likely to have been affected by a major degradation of the River Wye and its tributaries in recent years.

The claim will be brought against Avara Foods Limited, one of the UK’s biggest food producers, alleging that industrial scale chicken farming in the River Wye catchment area is polluting the River Wye and surrounding land.

Leigh Day says that evidence shows the operations of Avara Foods to supply UK supermarkets has been the overwhelming cause of phosphorous pollution which is damaging the River Wye.

Avara has said that it will cease polluting the river in the future. However, Leigh Day will argue that Avara Foods is responsible for the damage that has already been caused and should clean up the River Wye and the surrounding land, as well as pay hundreds of millions of pounds to people and businesses whose lives, livelihoods and enjoyment of the area has been impacted because of the effects of pollution.

The legal claim will also look to prevent Avara Foods from polluting the river further if the company doesn’t carry out its pledge.

Leigh Day says that people joining the legal claim will allege private and public nuisance and will live in a 4,000 sq km area in Powys, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire.

They will be people whose land and property surrounds the River Wye (potentially thousands of claimants) and people who belong to the community surrounding the Wye (potentially tens of thousands of claimants).

The claimants will include people affected by the pollution such as swimmers, canoeists, walkers, clubs, organisations, anglers and businesses whose lives and trade has been hit by the worsening condition of the river, or the nuisance effects on those living near chicken farming, such as smells, insects and noise. The businesses affected will include those working in tourism, hospitality and leisure.

The River Wye has been at the forefront of a major expansion of the chicken industry in the UK. Between 2013 and 2017 the number of birds in Herefordshire rose by one-third and researchers estimate the area now houses 23 million or more birds at any one time, generally concentrated in very large poultry units.

The largest poultry processor is Avara, which Leigh Day says is reportedly responsible for 80% of the birds in the River Wye catchment area.

It is believed that a significant factor in the increase in poultry production in the region after 2018 was in order to meet the chicken meat demands of Tesco, a customer of Avara Foods.

High intensity farming, such as that required by the large-scale operations of Avara Foods, has affected the water quality of the River Wye to which landowners and others have a right under common law, the legal claim will say. Some people living in the area have reported sickness after swimming, and last year the river was downgraded to “unfavourable – declining” status by the government nature watchdog Natural England. This is only two stages away from the River Wye being listed as “destroyed”.

The claim will allege that the scale of the operations of large corporate poultry producers is generating significant quantities of phosphorous-rich manure which leach into the soil and into the river. This is raising phosphorous levels in the water which cause algal blooms which result in odour, insect swarms, biodiversity loss and water quality reduction.

Avara Foods is a UK subsidiary of US multinational Cargill Plc which has faced similar claims in the US as a result of polluting the Illinois River due to the same practice of high intensive poultry farming.

In 2023, the Oklahoma Court ruled that Cargill Inc polluted the Illinois River by spreading chicken manure on land so that it then leached into the river’s watercourse. The judge in that case found that Cargill knew or should have known that using poultry waste as fertilizer posed a risk to waterways, and the UK claimants will similarly allege that Cargill Plc and Avara Foods knew that the outcome of intensive poultry farming would cause the pollution of the River Wye but continued with their operations anyway.

Avara Foods says it is committed to playing its part in the restoration of the River Wye “by taking accountability for the poultry manure that originates from it supply chain… but reversing the decline of the river is beyond the means of any single organisation”.

The civil claim is being handled by a team led by Leigh Day partner Oliver Holland. They said, “We consider that the significant decline in the health of the River Wye over the last few years is clearly linked to the significant increase in intensive poultry farming in the main brought about by Avara Foods. The lives and livelihoods of those living in the River Wye area are being significantly impacted only to the benefit of Avara Foods, a subsidiary of US multinational Cargill Plc. This destruction of one the UK’s most beautiful natural areas cannot continue, which is why we are bringing this legal action.”

The claim is supported by charity River Action. Chair and founder Charles Watson said, “With around a quarter of the country’s chickens now being reared in the catchment of the River Wye, the waste emitting from this totally unsustainable concentration of poultry production has blighted communities across the region.

“With a huge percentage of this industry controlled by Avara, it is entirely appropriate that the polluter must now be made to pay to clean up the mess we believe it has created and subsequently profited from. We therefore applaud this action being taken by Leigh Day to seek recompense for the pollution of this magnificent river.”


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