Let Them Eat Chicken

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?

Chicken dinner

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.

To participate:

  • Post your favourite chicken recipe on your blog (or email me at amerrierworld@googlemail.com 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 🙂 .

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  1. Jeannette

     /  June 26, 2008

    I only buy ‘free-range’ chicken on principle now, Kate, as I think a lot of responsible people are doing after seeing the programmes you mention. But I can understand why the other chicken meat on sale is so tempting to families trying to feed families. We are lucky as there are only two of us now and we can afford the higher price for the free-range meat.
    I can’t think of an interesting recipe of the top of my head but if i do I will e-mail it to you!

  2. This is a great idea, and in keeping witht his current news story…

    Its a shame Hugh FW failed!

  3. Would love to join in on this. I’ll be sure to post something if I come up with a good recipe by the deadline. Cheers.

  4. Hi Kate, I will certainly participate in this. I only eat free range chicken, well free range meat full stop, now. It means I don’t eat meat or chicken as often, and we are eating more vegetarian meals these days, but when we do eat meat we can eat it with a clear conscience.

  5. PS. I also only use free range eggs. It’s a part of the whole deal!

  6. I would love to join in Kate, I have a favourite Chicken recipe that I have lost, so I shall enjoy recreating it for your event.

    Its a great idea – so important to think about where our food comes from, if you cannot buy free range do not eat it is my mantra now.

  7. We only buy free range and because of that eat chicken less than we would if we were buying the cheaper pieces I think. Marks & Spencers had a great offer of “buy one get 2nd half price” this week in Dublin so we’ve stocked up a good bit.

    I’ve signed up to Hugh’s campaign since Hugh’s Chicken Run was on the tv earlier this year, shocking stuff and those poor chickens in the conditions they were forced to live in.

    This is a great idea you have and I’ll be sure to send you something a.s.a.p

  8. Hi Kate,

    We’d love to take part but are pretty busy this week and off on holiday the following week…if we don’t manage to cook something specific for your event then I’m sure we can find a recent post that qualifies. We certainly eat enough chicken to be able to fins something 🙂

    Great blog by the way, I’ve not come across it before and glad you found us 🙂


  9. Count me in, great idea!

    Like many others, we only buy free range or organic chicken now, wholly due to campaigns by Jamie & Hugh. Prior to that it really wasn’t given much thought I’m sorry to say 😦

    Hmmm…..now which recipe??? 🙂

  10. Hi, Kate

    Great idea! I recently managed to make a half price organic chicken from my local butcher stretch to 10 helpings plus some great stock for a soup – will email you the link and send a recipe – unless I get inspired by a better one!

  11. As organic chicken producers we are really pleased that consumers are trying to make a difference how they shop and thinking about the welfare and quality of the chicken they buy. Yes the organic option is expensive from the supermarket, but how about going direct to the farm? We are able to supply organic quality chicken to our local customers at the same price we are charging our wholesale customers in London and it so much more rewarding trade for us to speak directly to the person who cooks it! There are lots of small poultry producers that will rear and sell small numbers of poultry to high standards, so search out your local producer for a reasonable priced but quality chicken.
    My children’s favourite recipe is ‘chicken sticks’ that’s chunks of skinless breast meat on wooden kebab sticks then grilled, baked or BBq. For some reason they find them hilarious, something to do with Surf’s Up and Chicken Joe.

  12. realfoodlover

     /  July 1, 2008

    As St Hugh (the patron saint of chickens) has pointed out, ‘cheap’ chickens are a false economy because they are high in fat and low in nutrients. I have not bought one since the ’80s when I realised the poor grey thing lying on my kitchen counter had been – when alive – very sick. I look forward to entering your competition – great way to raise awareness of the issues.

  13. I wholeheartedly agree with the motives and principles behind the chicken welfare movement, but often missing, or poorly addressed, in all of this discussion is **what are people actually supposed to do?**

    – That is, people on an incredibly tight budget – poor people, if you like – the nutritional quality of ‘cheap chicken’ may indeed be vastly inferior, but that doesn’t make it utterly worthless as food, if you do not have the luxury of the choice.

    What helpful advice can be put forward for people on the breadline? – too often, it seems, the question is just brushed aside under a general instruction ‘don’t buy it’. That’s only helpful if an alternative action can be suggested.

  14. What a great idea. I’ll try and contribute something. I only eat organic chicken and even though I might gulp at the price I see chicken as the ultimate treat rather than a cheap source of protein. Free range meat contains nutrients that are absent from meat that has been reared indoors, meaning that people also need to take multi vitamins to top themselves up – why not spend that money on better welfare for the meat they eat?

    Eggs are a cheap source of protein, but even then I would rather pay for organic for the extra pound they cost per dozen.

    We eat chicken once or twice a month and I use every last morsel! I hear that in some countries they bake and boil the bones and then eat them – now that’s showing a chicken respect!

    Mostly we eat rabbit instead of chicken as its wild, lean, cheap and happy. Often even organic chickens are plump fatty birds due to consumer demand for soft juicy chicken. When I get a chicken that requires a little more chewing I think, thank goodness – this one really ran about.

    In response to the comment above; I’m glad that organic chicken costs what it does – that’s its real value, you’re buying a whole animal there – pay for it! Our parents and their parents only had chicken on special occasions and that’s hopefully what we should aim for too.

    For those people who eat meat and don’t have much to spend, there are many cheap cuts of good free range meat to choose from. People need re-educating about what to eat. Offal is super cheap and fantastically nourishing. Liver and bacon, devilled kidneys, slow cooked heart stew, slow cooked scrag end of lamb, braised stewing steak, pot roast rabbit. You could eat these wholesome dishes every night and spend the same amount of money as people do on cheap chicken. The only difference being that you would be healthy at the end of it and your conscience light and clean.

    We eat too much meat as it is. We food bloggers need to do much more of this consciousness raising. Thank you Kate, for doing it so eloquently!

    x x x

  15. As Atomic Shimp said – “…what are people actually supposed to do?…” I’m a lucky one and know what’s available to me and what to do with it, not so for everyone.

    It’s seems to me that many (not all) people have been used to just going to the nearest supermarket and buying what they want, when they want. I honestly believe that a large majority of those people really have no idea what to do now that they financially can’t. They’re stumped and frustrated because the way they were used to buying is no longer possible (if they want to pay the mortgage!).

    I, personally, would like to see more educational sorts of blogs/websites that address what exactly it is that these type of shoppers can do now. “Starting from scratch, here’s your food budget, and here’s what you can do with it.” Or, “These cuts of meat are more economical and these are they tastiest ways they can be used.” And so on……

    Taking chicken as an example. Jane Doe always bought the cheapest chicken around and her family was used to having chicken twice a week. Now Jane has seen how these chickens were reared and has decided she’ll opt for the free range variety. What bought 8 meals worth of chicken before, now only buys 3.5 . Jane doesn’t know what to do for the other 4.5 meals.

    She needs to be re-educated on what cuts of meat are suitable for what purposes and how to make that 3.5 meals of chicken stretch further. Many of these same people can’t tell you where a cut of meat comes from on the animal and don’t know what cut is appropriate for what type of cooking method. Now this is a fairly simple example, but I hope it gets my point across.

    Saying that the welfare of the chicken (or any other animal) is of utmost importance is not good enough. Many, many people today have lived no other way for their entire lives and honestly haven’t got a clue where to start.

  16. “Starting from scratch, here’s your food budget, and here’s what you can do with it.” Or, “These cuts of meat are more economical and these are they tastiest ways they can be used.”

    That’s a great idea, kadeeeae. Perhaps we could do that as our next event …?

  17. Could do I suppose 🙂

    It’s just that I feel strongly that in order to be able to “do the right thing” and also keep within a budget, lots of people will be needing help – in many ways possibly.

  18. Y

     /  July 3, 2008

    I watched the documentary on HFW’s Chicken Out campaign and was saddened to see how badly chickens are treated. I hope to find some time to join your event.

  19. Eating frugally is a bit like going on a diet. You have to change the way you think about food. And that’s more difficult than it used to be when women stayed at home. There isn’t the time to cook. Most people don’t have the skills. But I do think they care more than they used to about where their food comes from.

    As Naomi says we do need to get away from the idea of regarding a nightly slab of protein as an automatic right. If we care about animal welfare we should treat them with more respect, make the meat we have stretch with vegetables and grains and eat every last bit.

    The recommended serving size for meat according to lovefoodhatewaste.com is 140g – just 5 oz. If we abided by that whatever joint we bought would go a lot further.

  20. Elizabeth of Real Food alerted me to this. A very worthy cause. I think it’s utterly disgusting that as a nation we claim to love animals and yet chomp our way through battery farmed chickens every day! Looking forward to sending in my favourite chicken recipe…

  21. Kate,

    Thanks so much for hosting such an important event. Unfortunately I couldn’t participate but I support your efforts!

  22. Just back from holiday and got your invitation to this event. It’s an issue I feel VERY strongly about and will do my utmost best to post by Wednesday. 🙂

  23. Wonderful event! I’m in… but I think it’s also important to stress LOCAL free range chicken (and all other meat), because the cost of the carbon footprint for a free range bird is much, much higher than the increase in price at the register.

  24. Hi Kate,

    I just stumbled across your blog and I support the awareness you are trying to raise. Albeit it is a little last minute, I will be sending you the details you would require as soon as I finish my “Let them eat chicken” post 🙂


  25. this is my very favourite kick arse chicken recipe. making sure that the chicken is organic and grain fed will only make it much, much tastier…

  26. mmm.. i though i posted this link last night, so apologies if it turns up twice. but it’s just twice the opportunity to get your hands on quite possibly the best thing to do with a roast chicken (organic and free range of course!)

  27. I live in Ireland and just back from my weekly grocery shop ~ Supervalue in Ireland, where two minute, and I’m talking small! free range chicken breasts were €12. Next to them was the half price chicken with their severe hock-burns selling for €2.99 for a whole chicken.

    I bought the free range chicken in a hope that by increasing demand prices will come down… but really, how long will this message take!


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