In defence of cheap chicken
Ignore the posh fooderati on Channel 4 moaning about the factory-farming of chickens: we should celebrate the freedom provided by mass food production.
Before the Second World War chicken was a relatively expensive meat, with the UK population eating less than a kilo per annum – compared to today’s average of 23kg per person (1). After the war, as part of the government’s concerted efforts to ensure the UK was self-sufficient in food and able to move away from postwar rationing (which lasted almost a decade after the war ended), the industrial-scale production of chicken began. Today, 93 per cent of the fresh chicken we purchase, most of it produced in the UK, is reared on factory farms.
The issue of how we produce chicken made the front page of last Friday’s Independent thanks to a new series of shows on Channel 4. This week, the channel launched a season of campaigning programmes called ‘The Big Food Fight’, starring the channel’s three superstar celebrity chefs: restaurateur and king of on-screen swearing, Gordon Ramsay; trendy lifestyle chef turned saviour of school meals, Jamie Oliver; and Eton-educated smallholder and killer of squirrels, bunnies and anything else that might make a good dinner, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
In the first strand of this campaigning season, Hugh’s Chicken Run, Fearnley-Whittingstall launches his ‘Chicken Out’ campaign to persuade UK supermarkets to only stock free-range chicken, and to persuade us, the consumers, to stop buying factory-farmed birds. Fearnley-Whittingstall is hardly a friend of vegetarians; his previous exploits in his River Cottage programmes have enraged animal rights campaigners and the squeamish alike. Yet, in Chicken Run, his argument is that factory-farmed chickens suffer whereas free-range ones are happier because of the conditions in which they are kept; he has no problem with eating meat as long as the animals concerned live a ‘natural’ life.
Unsurprisingly blanked by the factory chicken farmers of the UK when he asks to visit their farms to demonstrate how cruel they are to their livestock, the River Cottage star decides to set up his own small-scale factory chicken farm, alongside a free-range farm for comparison, with both enterprises run to standard UK farming guidelines.
The other side to his campaign is to persuade a group of people who would ordinarily buy the factory-farmed two-chickens-for-a-fiver at their local supermarket to try free-range meat. Because so many people have opposed his arguments by pleading poverty, he persuades a group of people from a run-down local housing estate in his home town of Axminster, south-west England, to rear their own animals on a section of nearby allotments. A group of a dozen-or-so locals go along with the plan, though they seem initially more impressed with the fact that they are talking to their neighbours than with the business of farming. It may not be a practical way of feeding themselves, but you can bet the government’s social inclusion advisers were applauding every moment.
Along the way, Fearnley-Whittingstall cooks some really nice food to prove that free-range chicks are best (though a chef-prepared risotto would surely taste good regardless of where the chicken came from); persuades a local tool company’s canteen to ‘do a Jamie Oliver’, that is, dump catering cuisine and cook ‘real’ food instead; and finally, as is common to most TV production today, he makes some Axminster locals cry about their lifestyle choices (with weeping children for extra moral pressure!) when they visit his factory-farmed bird shed.
Happily, one of the Axminster locals, a generously proportioned single mum called Hayley, rather impressively refuses to cry or get upset on cue for the cameras. The reality of chicken farming is exactly what she imagined it might be like, she says. She’d probably prefer to eat the free-range stuff, but she’s just fine with intensive farming as it means she can afford to eat chicken and feed her family. She clearly hadn’t read the script.
I suspect most people would be surprised, perhaps even shocked, about what commercial livestock farming looks like and that’s because, thankfully, most of us no longer have to produce our own food, and are far removed from the meat products we buy at the supermarket. And why shouldn’t we be? One of the many benefits of the Industrial Revolution was a division of labour in society – and in this instance, that means that someone else produces my food and distributes it to a central purchasing point near my home, while I do some other job I specialise in. There is no reason to know who farmed my chicken or how, as long as it is produced to some decent, minimum standard with human welfare paramount.
An equivalent of the foodie obsession with the provenance of our food might be for me to demand to visit the Polish mine where the coal that lights and heats my home is extracted so I understand the source of this fuel and how it’s produced. If I was a real trainspotter, I’d also want to know the name of the individual Polish miner who personally dug the coal for me. As it happens, the coal analogy makes more sense than Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign; I do give a damn about the people who undertake the relatively dangerous task of mining as they are my fellow human beings; I really don’t give a stuff about a broiler chicken.
Fearnley-Whittingstall’s premise for his campaign is laid out clearly at the start of the first programme when he says: ‘To me, it shouldn’t be possible to produce a chicken for £2.50.’ This is because he thinks that chickens should be produced in a more labour-intensive way (free-range birds grow slower, are housed in lower densities and so take more human input to produce an eating bird). In Fearnley-Whittingstall’s world, the price of the average chicken would be at least double what we currently pay for a supermarket Grade A chicken. Presumably, a takeaway from KFC and a Marks and Spencer chicken sandwich would become more expensive, too. Why would we want to make our food more expensive?
As it happens, the animal welfare argument is somewhat bogus. What is good for a human being is not necessarily what is good for an animal. While animal welfare activists complain about the cramming of chickens into sheds, the programme makes clear that the free-range chickens are also at risk from health problems. The intensively produced chickens are bred to bulk up quickly and sometimes suffer leg problems as a result. The free-range birds, exposed to the outside world, are at greater risk of disease. Good stock management means that the relatively small proportion of chickens that do not thrive in either system, due to disease, injury or congential problems, are swiftly culled.
Even if farmers were heartless bastards who were careless about animal suffering (which they generally are not), they have a strong economic incentive not to carry on feeding chickens that won’t make the grade at the end of the 40-50 days required to fatten them up. While humans may find conditions in a broiler shed crowded and boring, that doesn’t mean that those animals are suffering in any way (2).
Chickens are food, and producing food efficiently is not ‘unethical’. If we put animal welfare before human convenience across the range of meat products that we consume, as the likes of Fearnley-Whittingstall believe we should, the result would be that for many people meat would be a rare treat that they could only eat perhaps once or twice a week. Of course, that restriction wouldn’t apply to the kind of well-off person who laps up the crusades of celebrity chefs, frets about their food labels and already pays over-the-odds for ‘ethical’ posh nosh.
It’s a good thing that people need to spend less of their income on simply sustaining themselves. If we have to spend less on the basics of survival then we’ve more money to spend on a whole world of other things. We may even choose to blow some extra cash on a free-range chicken from time to time, but it’s better that we can choose if and when we do that rather than having this foisted upon us by others who believe animal welfare is more important than having a bit more cash in our pockets.
The views put forward in ‘The Big Food Fight’ season are increasingly common ones espoused by an evangelical fooderati. This isn’t about chickens at all. It’s about a disgust at large-scale food production, our unhindered consumerism, our uneducated palates, all-powerful supermarkets, and our supposedly gross overconsumption. Packing a third less chickens in a factory shed and giving them rubber balls to play with, as illustrated in Hugh’s Chicken Run, is about making us feel a little bit better about eating them. The discussion about what’s ‘natural’ for chickens also helps to maintain a Disneyfied image of what farming looks like – something that looks rather like the River Cottage world we’ve watched over the past few years. As Fearnley-Whittingstall says in this new show, ‘this isn’t farming as I know it’. But River Cottage shows farming for the privileged few; it’s not the way you feed a nation of 60million people.
For me, it’s no contest. When it comes down to providing good cheap protein for human consumption over the welfare of a 39-day-old chicken, the human wins every time. As another Axminster local colourfully declares in Hugh’s Chicken Run: ‘If you’re that bothered about a fucking chicken then don’t eat the fucking twatting thing then.’
Justine Brian is national administrator of the UK schools debating competition, Debating Matters.
(1) The price of poultry, BBC
(2) Thanks to Mike Clark of Minster Veterinary Practice for background information on chicken welfare and health.
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