Animal welfare group CIWF (Compassion In World Farming) has withdrawn an earlier Good Chicken Award from food retailer The Co-operative, in response to the supermarket’s decision to allow higher stocking rates for some of its fresh poultry lines.

The Co-op won the award in 2010 in recognition of the fact that it had committed to only stock chicken reared at up to 30kg/sq m of live birds. This compares with the Red Tractor maximum of 37kg/sq m and the UK “standard” maximum of 38kg/sq m.

But, according to CIWF, the retailer has recently changed its policy to allow birds to be stocked at up to 34kg/sq m – equivalent to an extra two birds per sq m.

“The move is said to be for economic reasons, meaning animal welfare is seemingly being sacrificed to pay for the organisation’s poor business performance,” said a statement.

But The Co-op has countered the claim, pointing out that the change only applies to its own-brand fresh standard chicken. “We continue to provide customers with choice through our Truly Irresistible Free Range Freedom Food Chicken, in line with demand,” said a spokesman.

“Shoppers want food that is both responsibly sourced and competitive on price, and we have therefore taken steps to maintain the right approach to sourcing, while making British chicken available to more people at better value.

“The change will mean our birds still enjoy lower stocking densities than required for Red Tractor Farm Assurance, or offered by the Big Four supermarkets on equivalent ranges.”

CIWF food business director Tracey Jones conceded that the revised stocking level “is not as bad as in the worst broiler factory farms”. “But it means the chickens will have less space to move around freely and behave naturally, which can have a significant effect on their health and wellbeing.

“The Co-op has traditionally been a leader in higher animal welfare but in this case we’re left with no choice but to withdraw its Good Chicken Award. We cannot ignore that the company is now reneging on the promises it made in 2010,” she added.

In 2012, CIWF also removed a Good Egg Award from Morrisons when the supermarket reintroduced cage egg into its own-label value line.