Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Fowl goings on in your local supermarket

You'll need to have a heart of stone not to be affected by the series of programmes on Channel 4 this week that discuss chicken welfare. The main thrust has come from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his three-part series Hugh's Chicken Run (last part tonight) in which he attempts to convert the small town of Axminster in Dorset into the first free-range town in England. His various tactics have included revamping the staff canteen of the town's biggest employers - who were serving supermarket ready meals - so that it serves home cooked and free range food. The result is a happier workforce and a tidy profit. He's also engaged the people of the town with public meetings and posters. The most extreme action he's taken is to recreate a standard broiler stock shed next door to a free range stock shed so that people can see the difference in lifestyles between these two types of intensively-reared birds. But perhaps the most interesting experiment has been with those on lower incomes.

The supermarkets claim that their 'buy it cheap, stack it high' policy is what the customer wants. That may be true but what do the supermarkets do to ensure that their customers are informed about the choices they're making? Certainly, no chicken farm would let Hugh near their property with a camera. Why? Surely they have nothing to hide? It's the same story with the supermarkets. Up until the end of episode two last night, no supermarket would agree to be interviewed, on camera or otherwise. Again, you get the sense of people who know that what they're doing is legal but abbhorent and they're ashamed to let anyone in on their guilty secret.

The packaging of chickens is an issue too. 95% of all intensively-reared chickens (that's 850 million birds - not counting the ones that are culled for being underweight) will never see natural daylight. Their short, uncomfortable lives are spent in near darkness and packed tightly into sheds - each chicken has less floorspace to itself than a sheet of A4 paper. They have no amusement or things to occupy them except food and drink and they spend their whole five weeks of life growing ever more morbidly obese so that we have big birds for a small cost. And yet the packaging regularly displays photos or illustrations of open fields, blazing suns and lovely British countryside. This isn't providing 'what the customer wants' surely? This is disinformation in order to sell cheap chickens. The customer is being tricked into buying it. Honest labelling would put many off ... so they don't bother.
Hugh approached a group of local residents on a local authority-owned estate. Nearly all were in the lower income groups - the kinds of people for whom every penny counts. These were the supermarket's demographic; the people that the 'two chickens for a fiver' market was aimed at. He set them up with their own chicken run on an allotment where they could see what a chicken's life should be like. He also invited them to visit his factory shed. The effect was electric. Most were in tears. Most said that they would never eat cheap, factory-produced chicken again. A few hardliners held out stating that their single Mum income dictated that they bought cheaply and for volume. 'I can't afford to buy free range' said one Mum, 'Every penny counts'. It was telling that the lady who held out most strongly about this issue was significantly overweight (so lack of food isn't the issue here - it's volume) and some said that they only ever ate the breast and legs anyway. Hugh showed them how one free-range chicken could provide two meals if they utilised everything. For many of these people, it was a real eye-opener.

Because of the way I was brought up, a chicken always does me for three meals. There is the initial roast chicken dinner. Then, the bones are picked of any remaining chicken and that goes into a curry or a risotto. Finally, I cook up the carcases with any old tired-looking veg I have to make a stock that forms the basis of soups, stews, risottos and gravies. If I'm not using the stock straight away, as I've mentioned before, I freeze it. That chicken hasn't died in vain. I've brought my kids up the same way, to respect the animals they eat and to make the most of food and not waste it. My daughter Kerys is a single Mum with two kids and she's learned to buy better quality food and make it go further. As the result, she and her kids eat more healthily and ethically. If we all did the same and refused to eat the broilers, the supermarkets would very quickly adapt to demand and only stock free range chickens. And once they all do it, the price will soon drop.

I've never been a vegetarian but I do believe that if an animal has died for you in order that you can eat meat, you owe it to that animal to do whatever you can to have made its life as free from pain and distress as you can (on a purely selfish note, it will taste better too). In an ideal world, we would all be responsible for producing our own food. That means growing and killing animals ourselves. I wonder how many people would still eat meat then? Retail outlets have removed us from reality; the animals have become anonymous with packaging. They're just meat. Programmes like those made by Hugh and, in recent years, other notable personalities, force us back to face the reality of where our food comes from. If you can't accept what really goes on behind shed doors - don't eat meat. Hiding behind ignorance and a refusal to accept the truth is both cowardly and grossly unfair to the millions of animals we kill every year to stock those supermarket shelves. Have the courage of your convictions, people.

So, please, please, please ... if you care about the welfare of the most abused animal in the world, sign Hugh's petition here. Or click on the banner above. You'll be among a whole host of famous names and will be doing a very humane and worthwhile thing. The chickens will be better off and, ultimately, so will we. Watch the show tonight if you can. If you can't, Jamie Oliver is running a show on Friday 11th January at 9pm on Channel 4 called Jamie's Fowl Dinners. It will be shocking but informative ... and may change your eating habits forever.

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