When I was an agriculture student in the ‘80s, we visited an intensive poultry farm. As we left the building, half the students were in tears, much to the irritation of the farmer. To witness, at close quarters, the routine abuse of animals in the pursuit of cheap food was more than most of us could bear. I like to think that any sentient human being, having witnessed the reality behind producing a £3 discounted supermarket chicken or a bucket of KFC, could never stomach it again, but most of us never confront it. Cheap meat and eggs are not a right. Nor is it elitist to suggest that we should be prepared to pay for chickens to have a reasonable level of welfare. Most of us eat more meat than is good for us and the planet, so the simple answer could be to eat less rather than cheaper.
Yet animal welfare is not the only thing we should be worried about when it comes to chicken. A recent Food Standards Authority study revealed that on average 70% of chicken tested was contaminated with the especially nasty foodpoisoning bacterium Campylobacter. Given that 90% of the UK’s fresh chicken comes from the intensive farms and abattoirs of just five processing companies, it’s hard not to start making a connection. No difference was found in rates between intensive and free range/organic poultry; unsurprising given that much of supermarket own-brand organic chicken is from the same abattoirs.
The statistics that I’d like to see would be those comparing chicken from industrial abattoirs with birds reared unintensively on organic farms and processed in low-throughput conditions. Just two small scale family farmers that we know and trust rear Riverford’s birds, which are then processed in an equally small scale family run abattoir and our own low-throughput purpose built butchery. The fact that we’ve never had a case of Campylobacter traced back to us backs up my theory that less is best in every regard when it comes to chicken.