It hardly comes as a surprise that chicken is Britain’s favourite meat; it’s versatile, rich in protein and much lower in saturated and calories than red meat. Chicken amounts for half of all meat eaten in the UK, and as a nation we eat a staggering 900 million chickens per year. Despite this, the majority of Britons are ignorant as to where their meat comes from, and the truth behind mass chicken farming. Equally, many are simply reluctant to scratch the surface and continue to turn a blind eye in a bid to enjoy their chicken guilt-free.
I admit that the issue of farming standards is something I became much more aware of after my family rescued three lovely battery chickens two summers ago. Whilst chicken had previously been something exclusive to my plate, having chickens wandering around in the garden taught me that they are far more social, intelligent and inquisitive than I thought. To our surprise, my family and I really quite grew to love them. When they first arrived from the battery warehouse, the three girls were stressed, scrawny, quivering and, in places, featherless. Over a matter of weeks, though, we saw them develop into plump, energetic and glossy birds, with real personalities and the ability to recognise different individuals.
In fairness, misleading marketing and advertising of chicken has a huge part to play in the public’s perception of chicken farming. The primary source of this miscommunication comes from a number of labels incorrectly marketing said chicken to be humanely farmed and of good quality; these include the terms ‘farm assured’, ‘farm fresh’, ‘British’ and ‘corn fed’ commonly pasted on chicken packaging. The fact that a bird is British is not an assurance of quality, and simply indicates that it is a ‘greener’ choice due to lower amassed air miles. Similarly, corn-fed chicken is not necessarily a high welfare choice; though a corn-based diet affects the colour, texture and taste of the meat, it is not indicative of a humane upbringing. In fact, these commonly used labels guarantee next to nothing; the vast majority of chickens that are eaten in the UK are intensively farmed in very poor conditions. Whilst the ‘Red Tractor’ label is often seen as an assurance of quality (Nando’s, for instance, proudly advertise that they only use ‘British Red Tractor birds’), in reality, Red Tractor operates under the absolute minimum EU welfare standards. Shockingly, this allows up to 19 birds per square metre, which are housed in barren barns, with no access to natural light. After only six weeks – which is just half the natural time – the birds are taken to slaughter, and as a result many are too weak to even stand. Even though the use of antibiotics has been reduced, chickens are still often given doses to keep them alive in conditions that would otherwise kill them. Therefore, increased human antibiotic resistance could be being worsened by eating birds farmed in this way. Not only this, but recent research has shown that as much as 92% of chicken for sale is actually contaminated with faecal matter, contributing to the 250,000 Britons that fall ill from poultry food poisoning each year. Rather than being of a decent welfare standard, these practises seem barbaric and it’s bewildering to me that it is even legal to treat animals like this on such a huge scale.
To ensure that high welfare farming methods have been used, look for the terms ‘free range’, ‘organic’ and ‘RSPCA-assured’. A free-range bird will have grown for longer than one that has been intensively farmed, and will have had access to natural light and green spaces for at least half of their lives. Naturally, you’ll pay much more for an organic bird, but this chicken will have benefitted from the highest welfare standards possible, with more outside space than a free-range bird, having the freedom to move between green, outdoor spaces and light, spacious barns. The birds are given the time to grow at their natural pace, and a foraged diet and more active lifestyle results in a chicken that is ultimately much more flavoursome. Not only this, but an organic bird will be higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and lower in saturated fat.
At this stage, I’m sure that there are some of you are thinking that organic meat is all very well for those who can afford it, but for most people on a budget it’s not a realistic or sustainable option. However, if one makes the decision to eat and enjoy meat – because, really, it is a decision rather than human assumption that we have to eat it – then it seems fair to take the responsibility for where that meat has come from and the process it has undertaken to get to your plate. It almost seems patronising to say that anyone on a tighter budget can’t afford to care about these welfare issues; ethical and economic issues are independent of one another, and ethical issues cannot be overlooked on the grounds of economics. If it does nothing else of merit, perhaps Brexit will help secure better welfare standards for meat in the UK – earlier this year Michael Gove stated that farmers would be granted larger public subsidies for taking better care of their livestock under new Government plans for a ‘green Brexit’. Perhaps the key is for us to adopt an attitude whereby all meat, including chicken, is viewed as more of a treat than an everyday staple, so that when we do have it, we’re happier to pay that bit extra to ensure the animal has been treated with respect and dignity.