Wednesday, 16 January 2008

The Free-Range Chickens Debate

I am delighted to see so many TV programmes on British TV at the moment discussing nutrition and the quality of our food. What used to be a minority interest subject is being screened at peak viewing times and there are several programmes on offer at the moment.

TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall kicked off with a three-part series, "Hugh's Chicken Run" in which he built a temporary chicken barn and raised 4,000 chicks from 3 days old to slaughter time, of which just over a half were raised by current intensive standards and the rest given a life and some freedom.

The intensive group were kept indoors, saw no natural light, had nothing to do other than feed 23.5 hours per day and walked around in each other's urine and faeces. The shed stank of ammonia from the urine. Their life ended at 39 days.

The lucky chicks started off the same but after some days were given straw bales, perches, footballs and dangling CDs - all playthings to amuse chickens. Then, the gates were opened and they spent much of their day outside on grass. They lived to 56 days.

A group of council residents were given an allotment area and some chickens to raise themselves until it was time to slaughter them and eat them!

Jamie Oliver went further in "Jamie's Fowl Dinners". His audience sat at tables waiting for his gala dinner but first learned about chicken rearing the hard way. He reeled off the facts relating to the UK market:

- 855 million chickens are raised per year.
- 27 newborn chicks are culled every second in a gassing chamber.
- Dead chicks are given to zoos for animal feeding or put into pet food.
- Pound per pound, intensively farmed chickens are now cheaper than dog food.
- He made Mechanically Recovered Meat(MRM) from chicken carcasses and waste.
- Brits consume 29 million eggs every day, ie 10 billion eggs per year.
- Laid out top to tail, the eggs would circumnavigate the globe 15 times.
- A busy hen lays 300+ eggs per year and spends its whole life - about one year - in a cage with a few others.
- 20 million battery hens are kept in cages.
- 60% of eggs in Britain are laid by battery hens.
- 5 billion eggs are produced by battery hens every year.

One woman set up a charity taking the worn out battery hens after their busy year, saving them from slaughter and passing them on as domestic hens where they can live 8+ years continuing to lay eggs.

Hellman's mayonnaise is a brand we all love but it is made from battery eggs. Their spokesman said they had to ensure a huge volume of eggs for the production but are committed to only use free range eggs by June 2008. Good on them.

The cheapest eggs cost 12p to the consumer, barn eggs about 19p and free range eggs, 21p. The difference in taste is incredible, never mind the welfare of the chickens.

An EU ban on battery hens will be enforced in 2012.

So back to the chickens. They hatch after 21 days and any potentially lame ones or underweight ones are immediately culled. This culling occurs daily as they cannot move about so risk being trampled. 17 chickens share a space of just 1m2.

A farmer makes a 3p profit per chicken. Typical Tesco price of an intensively raised chicken is £2.99 or two for a fiver. I dread to think how much of that goes into plastic packaging.

By 2010, the RSPCA Freedom Fird birds will have access to natural light, straw, perches, footballs and hanging toys. They want the birds to have 25% more space and a 49 days growing period. The price of such a chicken is £3.99, just £1 more, and it has a better flavour. That seems fair enough to me.

Free-range chickens are allowed 75-100 days growth and sell for about £7. Hugh found some for £2 more than a cheapie so suggested £2 for a family of 4 means 50p extra each - a price that might be worth paying.

I might point out that here in my local Carrefour supermarket in Belgium, a cheap chicken costs about 5€, a corn-fed chicken costs 9€ and a free-range chicken, 12€ so the price differential is greater. Cheap eggs cost 0,10€(30 for 3.15€), barn eggs 0,26€ and free range eggs 0,39€. Divide by 1.4 to convert to £.

Time and again, the programmes referred to the price and "what the consumer wants". Actually, it is what the supermarkets want in their price war. Chickens used to be a luxury and not a cheap food option. Supermarkets forced the farmers to produce cheaper chickens and eggs and to find ways to continually cut the price. We are used to paying a certain price for a food then a supermarket offers us an own brand option for less so we eat that instead. Tesco go further with their white brands - the 9p tin of baked beans, for example. We did not demand such cheap beans but it was offered to us by Tesco who want us to buy from them and not a competitor. Many cheap foods are sourced from third world countries produced by cheap labour. The product is canned nearer home so labelled produce of eg Italy and we are none the wiser.

I did not eat chickens or any meat from 1984 to 2007 because of the way chickens are farmed in the UK, not because I am an animal lover which I am not but because of the forced feeding, the unnatural lives, the inevitable disease and knock-on effect on our health. I suffered one week with salmonella poisoning in 1980 caused by a chicken sandwich. I started eating chicken again just to be sociable but eat no other meat. Well the odd slice of Serrano ham. I am not evangelistic about vegetarianism. It is simply my quiet preference and a much cheaper food option.

The point about chickens is not so much which type of whole chicken you choose to buy but about the poor quality of meat used in chicken products, especially the nuggets given to children because they are tasty. LISTEN PEOPLE - THEY ARE RUBBISH.

I wonder whether KFC and McDonalds will now be forced by consumer pressure to consider their chicken sources.

I know millions of people are on a low budget. (I once heard the frightening statistic that 38 million of the 60 million Brits in the UK had less than £112 to their name!) Yet many of these people still find money for alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets. Don't get me started on the latter. Then there are new clothes every season, piles of them cheaply bought at Primark, a car and the must-have holidays. Very few people in the UK are so poor that they cannot make healthier food choices - like eating cheaper beans and pulses instead of meat. It is all a question of priorities.

Will someone please investigate why smoked salmon is now so cheap? It used to be a luxury, Christmas day food but 200g of cheapo Atlantic product made(?) in France now costs 1,50 € in Carrefour, down from 2,99 €. Of course it is thin and the odd bit is too chewy to eat but it is edible enough for sandwiches. Even my 10 year old's school sandwiches.

Read about Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's TV campaigns:
News on SmartPlanet about chicken sales since the programmes.
Response from the Supermarkets in The Times
Guardian article with readers' comments
Christians urged to buy free-range chickens

©Antonia Stuart-James 2008 on

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