How do you choose which chicken meat to buy? Is it because it looks fresh and is within its sell-by date, or do you look first at the price? How much influence does the quality of the meat have on your choice?
It is easy to assume that organic, free-range chicken is a luxury only the wealthy can afford. Take this out of the picture and the rest of us are left to choose among the various standard packages of chicken on the supermarket shelves. Assessing quality becomes problematic, so in reality we are probably most influenced by appearance and price when it comes to actually putting a chicken in our trolley and on our tables.
It is also easy to assume that this is all fine and well. It might not be organic, but it’s the best we can manage. The majority of us are neither super-rich nor seasoned animal-rights activists. We have families to feed and tight budgets to control. Our daily lives are normal, mundane and average. Supermarket chicken might be cheap, but that’s our life. It’s cheap because we need it to be cheap. Consumer demand makes it cheap – it sells.
Does it matter how we keep the price of this chicken so low? Well yes, it does … if we’re at all interested in the quality of the meat we feed to our families, that is.
In January this year, The Independent reported covertly-shot footage of the chickens we are eating. The video was taken by the animal welfare group, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and can be seen here on YouTube.
The conditions seen in this video are typical of those in intensive systems of farming. They are designed to keep the cost of chicken low. Researchers from Edinburgh describe how each shed houses up to 20, 000 birds. The floor is covered with wood shavings that are not changed throughout the entire duration of a flock’s six-week life. The chickens therefore live constantly among their own litter and droppings. Furthermore, the chickens have little fresh air and no natural light. The sheds are windowless so that light, heating and ventilation can be artificially controlled to reduce movement and maximise weight gain.
These chickens are termed broilers as they are reared specifically for meat production. In other words, they are not simply egg-producing hens at the end of their useful laying life … as used to be the case. Instead, broiler chickens have been progressively selected to grow bigger and faster than egg-producing chickens, preferably with as much breast meat as possible to satisfy our demand for the product. They grow rapidly from 45g at birth to 2.2 kg at slaughter only 42 days later. This represents a 300% increase in growth rates over the last 50 years.
Recent research by scientists in the UK describes in detail how such a massive weight gain leads to poor walking ability and severe leg disorders in these very young chickens. They point out that strategies to reduce leg health problems would also reduce growth rate and production … which means the chickens could not be reared as quickly or as cheaply.
It’s a vicious circle propelled by the decisions we make in the supermarkets.
A survey in 2001 by researchers at the University of Reading highlights the centrality of animal welfare concerns to food safety, quality and healthiness. On the whole, we do understand that good animal welfare standards lead to good food standards. However, this research also suggests that we don’t really want to know about how our demand for cheap meat is translated into farm rearing practices:
Consumers claim that they are uninformed about modern animal production and would like more information so that they can make informed choices. However, the issue of information is double-edged. On the one hand, consumers believe they have the right to make informed food choices. On the other hand, consumers engage in voluntary ignorance, in order to abrogate responsibility for animal welfare … Moreover, although consumers claim that they are willing to pay more for improved animal welfare, at point of purchase such claims are not translated into practice.
And so we reach the bottom line. We are personally responsible for the meat we eat.
Unless we are willing to meet the costs, the burden of any regulatory change on producers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and exporters will be too great. If we choose not to pay more for our chicken, broiler companies and farmers will be unable to implement any improvements to current commercial practices. What will be our sources of cheap chicken in the face of EU legislation on animal welfare? Do we really believe our children deserve no better quality of meat than that produced in factory farms?
If you’d like to join me in raising awareness about broiler rearing systems, there are several things you can do. Most importantly, take responsibility for your choices in the supermarket. Talk to friends and family – involve everyone you meet in a discussion about the quality of chicken meat. Support Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Out campaign. In short, create a demand for premium, higher-welfare chicken!
You can also send me your favourite chicken recipe using free-range chicken. I will make a round-up of all entries on my birthday, Friday 18th July.
- Post your favourite chicken recipe on your blog (or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, recipe and photo of your dish)
- Include in your post information about the chicken you used – where you bought it, what it tasted like etc.
- Include a link to this blog announcement
- Email me your name, blog URL and a link to your post by Wednesday 16th July.
I look forward to hearing from you :-) .