What chicken?

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Chicken is the most popular meat eaten in the UK – we eat about 1 billion chickens every year.  Of these approximately 10% are “higher welfare” birds.  What does this mean and what are the issues with chicken we buy and eat in the UK?

Intensive farming methods have swallowed up the majority of the UK chicken farming industry.  There are 3 main providers of chicken: 2 Sisters, Moy Park and Avara Foods. 

According Which?, the UK consumer watchdog organisation, 80% of low welfare poultry is produced for the industrial market and so 20% to consumers via supermarkets. 

So, of the billion or so chickens slaughtered every year 900,000 are kept in sheds and fed chicken feed and only 100,000 have space, better food, and only some of these have outdoor access or sunlight.

This means that the chicken you eat in most high street restaurants, from ready-made meals and the cheap birds available in the supermarket are low quality, feed on bad food and probably fed antibiotics for the short duration of their sad lives.

Chicken is the most popular meat eaten in the UK – we eat about 1 billion chickens every year.  Of these approximately 10% are “higher welfare” birds.  What does this mean and what are the issues with chicken we buy and eat in the UK?

Intensive farming methods have swallowed up the majority of the UK chicken farming industry.  There are three main providers of chicken to supermarkets: 2 Sisters, Moy Park and Avara Foods. 

According Which?, the UK consumer watchdog organisation, 80% of low welfare poultry is produced for the industrial market and so 20% to consumers via supermarkets. 

So, of the billion or so chickens slaughtered every year 900,000 are kept in sheds and fed feed and only 100,000 have space, better food, and only some of these have outdoor access or sunlight.

This means that the chicken you eat in most high street restaurants, from ready-made meals and the cheap birds available in the supermarket are low quality, feed on bad food and probably fed anti-biotics for the short duration of their sad lives spent on the equivalent of an piece of A4 paper.

Deciding what chicken to buy is by no means easy and the food labelling is clearly designed to promote a good image of the product but not really tell us anything else.  Pictures of chickens surrounded by grass is probably not an indication of living conditions.

Labelling tells us that the supermarket has Trusted Farmers; Trusted Farms; or the chicken is High/Higher Welfare.  All of these terms should be ignored as there is no legal definition to control the actual source or welfare of the animals.

To be honest, it is not just the welfare of the animal we need to be concerned about.  It is also what that animal protein does to us if we eat it.  Michael Pollen, the food writer and journalist in the US, wrote “you are what you eat ate”.  I think the meaning of this is clear –our body’s cells are replaced on a very regular basis and the food we eat forms the building blocks for all cell regeneration.  So, what we eat directly affects us and if we eat a contaminated product, we get ill, probably slowly.

This concept is easy to relate to when we consider the humble fish – if we eat a fish that has been swimming around in mercury polluted water we would expect to have a problem with mercury poisoning.  The same is true of meat and poultry which has been fed cheap feed designed to bulk up the size of the animal to make it more valuable – that feed will end up in our bodies and will do the same to us as it did the animal – i.e. it will cause inflammation in our bodies and make us fat.  This is perhaps more important when we realise that mass producers of low-quality meat feed their animals anti-biotics to avoid disease spreading in the tightly packed animal pens.  This leads to anti-biotic resistant strains of bacteria developing and a constant stream of anti-biotics in our bodies which is now accepted as being bad for our health.

So how does this work with our chicken bought in the supermarket and what should we be looking for?  There are some meaningful labels out there.

Red Tractor – this means that the produce is British; follows standard of production set by the Red Tractor scheme; and these standards for chickens although low, are generally improving over time.

RSPCA Assured – this is an assurance from the RSPCA that animal welfare standards are higher than the minimum set by the EU; and that the chickens are on a slower growth rate.

Free Range – this means that chicken breeds used in the product are slower growing breeds, so slow growth rate; at least 50% of the life of the chicken is spend outside; supermarkets normally set their own standards on top.

Organic – any chicken product labelled as organic must meet strict production standards including fewer than 20 pesticides used; always free range living conditions; always have outside access; smaller flock sizes; significantly more living space in and outdoors.

What does this all mean?  Cheap chicken, bearing in mind chicken can be found at a lower price point than potatoes, is a very poor product from very poor stock.  The breed has been chosen as it is fast growing and can therefore be hatched and sent to slaughter in a 5- 6 week period.  This standard practice is within all EU, UK and Red Tractor guidelines.

Free range labelled chicken must be allowed to live for at least 56 days or 8 weeks.  These are generally slower growing breeds.  Free range birds may also be sold as corn fed.  Corn fed birds tend to have a yellow colour and are considered a much higher quality of meat than just free range. 

Organic being the gold standard of chickens, generally have a life span of 10 – 12 weeks depending on breed.  They are fed only organic feed and are medicine and anti-biotic free unless disease is required to be treated by a vet.

So, as with a lot of food issues, the general advice is to understand what it is you are buying and putting in your body.  Cheap produce is probably not good for our wellbeing.  Whilst no immediate effect, the long-term harm we may be doing to our bodies could be dramatic – why is there an apparent increase in dementia, diabetes, cancer, inflammatory conditions and other chronic illnesses?  There is unlikely to be any study or evidence about the harm cheap chicken may cause as most research is funded by the food industry for the food industry but being armed with the facts gives us a better chance to make better decisions.

What the chicken situation demonstrates, I think, is that we need food campaigners and journalists to find out what is in our food chain so the consumer can decide what to eat.  It is perhaps at the economically challenged end of the population that choice starts to be difficult.  Also, never believe that food producers won’t sell you something that is bad for your health.  Being a cynic, I avoid foods packaged with health benefits and vitamins plastered all over it – yes, I’m talking breakfast cereals!

But for chicken, the choice is clear – eat the more expensive stuff less often with more vegetables on your plate.  The less cheap chicken we buy, the less it will be produced.  Oh, and don’t eat chicken in high street food chains!  “Best in class” for basic chicken products are M&S and Waitrose.  Both have their own higher standards for chickens produced under their own branded product.  They have clearly defined their chicken policy on their websites.  Other major supermarkets including Tesco and Sainsbury all have similar policies and Red Tractor standard minimums in most cases.  You can check the detail out on the respective websites, but it is dull reading.

So generally everything seems to be moving in the right direction, just slowly.  The less cheap chicken we buy both at the shops and at restaurants the better for the birds and the quality of food we eat.  Remember, cheap chicken is still really bad food; buy better produce less often.

With the prospect of Brexit looming (at the time of writing), and a new trade deal with the US we could be in for another chicken product arriving on our shelves – that of the infamous chlorine-washed US industrial chicken.  This is a product we definitely do not want to see on our shelves and menus.  It has been suggested by many commentators that the US industrial, intensive farming techniques have led in part to the blooming chronic health issues in the US today.  This in turn leads to an overreliance on healthcare which puts us on a downward spiral of health and wellbeing issues fuelled by “big food” and “big pharma”.  The Guardian recently posted an article and some footage of a large chicken factory based in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/25/footage-chickens-big-uk-producer ) working to Red Tractor standards – clearly there is a long way to go.

I am a firm believer that food is the best medicine, so we need to identify the food our own bodies need and find the right balance.  This way we can try to avoid health issues before they arise, and we can live our best life to the max every day.

Chickeny links:

https://www.waitrose.com/home/inspiration/about_waitrose/about_our_food/chicken.html

https://corporate.marksandspencer.com/sustainability/food-and-household/product-standards/raw-materials-commodities-and-ingredients/poultry

https://sustainability.tescoplc.com/sustainability/downloads/animal-welfare-policy/more-information-on-our-uk-animal-welfare/

https://www.about.sainsburys.co.uk/making-a-difference/sourcing/animal-health-and-welfare

https://assurance.redtractor.org.uk/standards

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