The high price paid for our cheap chickens

PEOPLE who eat chicken have a moral duty to buy higher-welfare birds. This is my strong belief and so I was dismayed to learn celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall failed to get Tesco shareholders backing proposals to improve welfare standards for ch

PEOPLE who eat chicken have a moral duty to buy higher-welfare birds.

This is my strong belief and so I was dismayed to learn celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall failed to get Tesco shareholders backing proposals to improve welfare standards for chickens, at Tesco's annual general meeting on Friday.

He needed 75 per cent of the shareholders' votes to force the supermarket giant to adopt new standards for rearing birds, but he only managed to secure 10 per cent.

Had the proposal been backed by shareholders, Tesco would have had to adopt the RSPCA's freedom farm standards on how birds are fed, exercised and transported.


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Tesco, which accounts for more than a fifth of all intensively reared chickens sold, slashed its retail price of standard whole chickens from £3.50 to £1.99 earlier this year.

During Hugh's Chicken Run week - a short series shown on Channel 4 earlier this year - the star of Back to River Cottage revealed how low supermarket prices are forcing more farmers to rear battery chickens in order to scrape a living.

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Intensive birds, crammed together at around 19 per square metre, are slaughtered at five to six weeks, whereas free range chickens must have more space to move around indoors, an outdoor run, and are killed at eight weeks.

Farmers simply cannot afford to raise free range birds because their arms are firmly up their backs due to the low prices paid to them by supermarkets as a consequence of the low retail prices these superstores have set.

I think it's appalling that supermarkets are waging a price war against something which has huge ethical effects.

I'm all for supermarkets slashing prices, but not when it means animals will have diabolical and unacceptably miserable lives.

I think when shoppers enter a supermarket they engage auto pilot, mindlessly filling their trolleys in a systematic, almost robotic, fashion.

Look around next time you're in a superstore and you'll see glazed over expressions on most people's faces.

But when shopping there are many important ethical decisions to make - should I buy a battery chicken or a free range one? Should I buy eggs produced by caged hens, hens that live in barns, or hens that have experienced the great outdoors? Should I buy a fillet of cod when I know stocks of the white fish are low, or should I go for a fish like pollock, which are currently plentiful? Shoppers should have their brains switched on and, more importantly, their consciences engaged.

I'm sure many people will say they cannot afford to pay free range prices but I think this is a cop out; it's something people trot out without really thinking, to try to keep their scruples intact.

Meat used to be considered a luxury, something you would have once or twice a week, but now it seems people are eating it every day.

Chicken accounts for about 40 per cent of all meat eaten in Britain, with about 16m birds slaughtered a week.

If budgets are tight, people should stop eating such heavy diets of meat and vary it with meat-free pastas, quiches, stir fries...the list is endless and scrumptious. And, best of all, adopting such a diet is healthy.

People should be prepared to compromise their diet, before they even think about compromising their conscience or the lives of animals.

Hugh, a Tesco shareholder himself, said: "You can't budget your way out of an ethical issue," and I whole-heartedly agree.

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