The RSPCA has handed over 350,000 signatures to Tesco bosses at its AGM today, demanding the supermarket urgently improves the welfare of its meat chickens.

Tesco is the largest retailer of intensively reared indoor chicken, spending more than £370 million on such chickens each year.

Welfare groups have real concerns about the welfare of intensively-reared birds, genetically selected to grow fast contributing to serious health and welfare issues and often kept in conditions where they barely have space to stretch their wings freely.

Joined by welfare group Open Cages, the organisation has handed in more than 354,000 signatures from animal-loving shoppers to Tesco bosses and shareholders.

Claire Williams, campaign manager at the RSPCA said: “Tesco has by far the biggest market share of "intensively reared" chicken meat, and it’s their duty to ensure the animals were raised to good welfare standards. The potential difference they could make to animal welfare is enormous - why wouldn’t they listen to their customers and make this hugely positive change for animal welfare?

“At the moment, the majority of standard chicken meat sold in supermarkets is from specially selected breeds of bird that are chosen because they grow really fast, in the shortest time possible. Most of these birds are actually only 36 days old when they are killed for meat, but already weigh 2.2kg.

"Many often struggle to walk or stand, let alone use a perch, and they can suffer from severe heart defects. It’s a really concerning issue that most people wouldn’t know about, until now, but consumers are switching on to the welfare problems of these birds and they are demanding action.”

Recent polling showed that 86 per cent of shoppers expect supermarkets to ensure the chicken on its shelves are farmed to higher welfare standards.

Claire added: “M&S and Waitrose have already signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment - it’s high time Tesco did too.

"By signing up to the Better Chicken Commitment, supermarkets would be raising the basic level of chicken welfare, which includes not using these fast-growing breeds anymore. While it’s not as beneficial for their welfare as if they were to sign up to a higher welfare scheme like RSPCA Assured, it is still a step in the right direction.

“Sadly, we’ve seen that some supermarkets attempt to reassure concerned shoppers who write to them of their ‘good animal welfare,’ by referencing things like farm assurance standards, the number of yearly inspections, and their work with industry bodies. But shoppers should know that while this sounds reassuring, this does not always mean that animal welfare is any different than the industry standard, or sometimes any more than the legal minimum.

"For example, providing perches, other types of enrichment and even free-ranging is not that meaningful if the birds themselves are growing too quickly and can have difficulty walking by the end of their lives or are physically unable to use the enrichment.

"One supermarket even states that without any supporting science or evidence that the Better Chicken Commitment would deliver them a more sustainable, healthy and affordable option, they would be unlikely to sign up - which sadly, shows that animal welfare doesn’t appear to be on their list of priorities. We hope this petition demonstrates to them that this is a serious and important issue for the public.”