Every day in Britain we eat 2.2 million chickens. Poultry accounts for half the meat eaten in the UK — but how is it possible to sell a whole bird at such an extraordinarily low price? Industrial farming has made it possible for a bird to be housed, fed, slaughtered, processed, packaged and transported to a supermarket shelf near you, all for a price lower than an afterwork beer.
Here’s the price supermarkets don’t want you to know about:
- 91% of chickens sold in the UK by law have an A4 sheet sized allowance of space in a shed.
- Chickens are kept in constant dim light day and night to discourage rest and speed up growth.
- Antibiotic use is routine resulting in 1/4 of chickens testing positive for antibiotic resistant e-coli.
- 2.2m chickens consumed daily in the UK. Around a billion chickens are slaughtered every year.
Here’s how factory farming has transformed the humble chicken we eat into something so unrecognisable, we may as well give it a new name.
Supermarkets enable a system where a whole fresh chicken is cheaper than a pint of beer
The average price of a pint in the UK is £3.47. The average cost of a whole chicken weighing a minimum of 1.35kg from four of the leading supermarkets is £3.15. Chicken is a live animal, whereas beer isn’t.
The supermarket has made the whole chicken an everyday staple, such as bread or milk. In the race to the bottom, retailers will do anything to compete against price and keep them low for their customers, particularly for core staple products. If that means paying producers less (remember the nation’s dairy farmers ‘milk trolley challenge’ protest?), producing products of questionable quality or even using fake farm names to suggest provenance, then so be it.
94% of chicken in the UK comes from intensively reared birds.
Intensive methods mean UK chicken farms are allowed to house up to 39 kilos per square metre — that’s about 17 birds per square metre. Probably not what you consider when picking up a bird for the Sunday roast. “Intensive chicken farming goes on behind closed doors,” says Dil Peeling, campaigns director at charity Compassion in World Farming (CWF). “It’s hidden from people. They still have this image of chickens scratching around in a farmyard.”
It’s easy to assume that for every intensively produced chicken there are plenty of free-range and organic birds in the market. However, free-range accounts for just 5% and organic 1% of UK chicken production.
Any wizened farmer will tell you that you get out of the land what you put into it. The same goes for the varied range of chicken farming practices, reflected in the price you pay. You can expect to pay around £9.50 for a free range chicken and £12.80 for an organic one. These chickens differ dramatically in price to intensively reared birds due to how they are raised, and what they are fed.
A factory farmed chicken is raised in a warehouse and fed on grain grown elsewhere using environmentally damaging production methods. A slow-grown or organic chicken on the other hand will spend most of its life outdoors. For feed, it’ll rely on a mix of pasture, grain and hedgerow treats such as berries and seeds.
24% of UK supermarket chicken samples tested positive for antibiotic resistant E-coli.
The intense crowding of chickens in factory farming increases the likelihood of sickness and infection, thereby precipitating the use of preventive antibiotics. It’s estimated 50% of all antibiotics in the UK is given to farm animals. Experts predict that globally, 10 million people a year could die from antibiotic resistant infections by 2050. The world is waking up to the dangers of drug resistance as a result of the overuse of antibiotics and recognising a need for improvements in animal stewardship. Is time ticking for industrial chicken farming?
In 2016 researchers found superbugs on the shelves of all seven major UK supermarkets. Cambridge University Professor Mark Holmes told The Guardian newspaper: “The levels of resistant E. coli that we have found are worrying. Every time someone falls ill, instead of just getting a food poisoning bug, they might also be getting a bug that is antibiotic resistant”.
But there is an alternative:
A better tasting bird has a better quality of life.
Watery breasts that like slice butter, weak bones that bear no resistance, and meat with little, if no flavour. These sacrifices to taste, quality and flavour are a direct result of intensive farming. Chickens reared before World War II were primarily laying hens for egg production. Rationing was lifted in 1954, prompting increased production of chickens raised for meat.
Professor Andrew C. Goodley describes in his report ‘The chicken, the factory farm and the supermarket’ how the independent poultry trade ‘disappeared’ during the war and “it was retailers, not the Ministry of Agriculture, who pressed British poultry farmers to follow American methods, exploit economies of scale and so drive down the price of chicken.”
Farmers are embracing slow-grown chicken.
Small-scale poultry farmers Nick and Jacob at Fosse Meadows Farm in Leicestershire are doing things differently. They believe the best quality chicken comes from slow-grown birds and sell direct to customers across London at farmers’ markets and online via Farmdrop. Their birds are grown for at least 81 days. Nearly double the average slaughter age of 42 days in the EU. Author of The Ethical Carnivore Louise Gray notes how “industry ‘leaders’ are growing ‘fully grown’ chickens in 35 days…raised so fast they barely have time to move around, let alone develop fat, are tasteless.”
Fosse Meadows follow the slow-grown French Label Rouge way of farming which is highly regarded as an exemplary traditional method of raising poultry. “Our birds roam further and they don’t just sit and eat all day. Your supermarket free range chickens won’t be doing these things because their legs aren’t strong enough” says Nick.
The ability to roam free also impacts the taste and texture of the meat. Fosse’s birds moves their muscles more than those kept indoors and enjoy a more varied diet. “Our birds have thicker skin and a much better fat content with lots of flavour in that fat” Nick explains. “Their bones have developed properly and are much stronger. The meat is a lot firmer too and has more structure. It is totally different.”
Can chicken be made good again?
Every food purchase you make is a vote for the kind of food system you want. Buying sustainably produced chicken, knowing who produced it and also holding them accountable is a step to a better system.
Author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan wrote, “eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing, or, now forgetting.” We haven’t forgotten. More consumers prove they care about these issues — by proving it with their pound. Big retailers will be forced to make changes that are better for our health, and our chickens.
By Susan Holtam of @Farmdrop.