First, beef sales in restaurants were hit with the outbreak of BSE; then lamb left the menu with the outbreak of foot-and-mouth; farmed salmon fell from favour after a residue pesticides scare; tuna and swordfish were found to contain heavy metals; and now it's the turn of chicken to become embroiled in scare stories over health, animal welfare and unnatural adulteration during processing.
While a great deal of chicken destined for UK restaurants is produced either in Britain or in the wider EU, it also comes in from other parts of the world, most notably Brazil and Thailand.
Maximum stocking density in UK rearing units is currently 15 to 23 chickens per square metre, according to bird size. So for chickens - apart from a need to get on with their neighbours - early death and disease is always a risk. Mortality rates of up to 30% are widely quoted by animal welfare pressure groups. To control this and boost production, again according to animal welfare pressure groups, growth hormones and antibiotics are routinely fed to chickens.
Antibiotic residues can be present in chicken meat at the time of eating, and tests have shown that some chicken coming from South America and the Far East contains traces of banned antibiotics. The Food Standards Agency (FSA), which commissioned the tests, believes the affected chicken was probably destined for the catering industry.
Following on from that scare, earlier this year the EU imposed a Europe-wide ban on the importing of any chicken from South-east Asia, most notably Thailand, because of the outbreak of avian flu out there. The FSA says avian flu does not present a risk to human health, but the ban is still in place.
And the troubled life of a chicken fillet does not end at slaughter. Because it is a price-led commodity purchase for so many caterers and secondary food processors, primary chicken processors came up with a way to increase the weight of chicken fillets: pump water into them. Adding chemicals to the chicken meat increases the amount of water the chicken can absorb - up to 55% water can be achieved by adding beef and pork protein to chicken meat.
Apart from this being a rip-off for the catering industry when the water just cooks out, it has alarming implications for those customers who, for religious or cultural reasons, do not eat either pork or beef. Four chicken processors in Holland were successfully prosecuted last year for this offence, but the process still goes on, and there is still no EU limit on how much water can be pumped into chicken.
All this contributes to the public perception of chicken and explains why a growing number of chefs are taking greater interest in just what kind of chicken they are serving in the restaurant. The buzz word is provenance - where has it come from?
Perception is not the same as fact, says one of Britain's most knowledgeable people on chicken production. Graham Cruickshank is editor of Poultry World, an associate magazine of Caterer, and he says many of the scare stories about chicken are myths, broad generalisations, ancient history or mischief put about by animal welfare pressure groups.
"The best guarantee of safe, welfare-friendly chicken is to buy British to the Assured Chicken Production standards," says Cruickshank. "The UK has the highest welfare and production standards in Europe, far beyond what the EU says is minimum. The problems surrounding chicken are mostly coming from imported chicken. There is one simple purchasing rule: ask for evidence from the supplier that the chicken is British and from a producer that is a member of the Assured Chicken scheme."
He debunks the perceptions one by one: British chicken farmers do not routinely feed antibiotics - only a vet can authorise animal medicines if a problem arises in the flocks, which is rare. Any farmer taking a 30% mortality rate would go out of business; the real mortality figure is about 5%, and that normally happens at a very early growth stage. And the practice of adding water to chicken during primary processing might happen in some parts of the world, but not in Britain. Nor has any UK chicken farmer anything to hide, adds Cruickshank. "UK farmers regularly get visits from key customers to look at production. It just needs arranging through the supplier."
One of the UK's biggest buyers of chicken in catering is Compass Group, with a need to serve it to every level of customer from directors' dining to school meals. Nicki Crayfourd, support director for Sevita, the Compass Group purchasing division, says it has a policy of buying only UK-produced raw chicken and uses a single supply source to give it full traceability.
Says Crayfourd: "Our chicken comes from contracted farms, and we regularly inspect them to do quality-control audits and random sample testing. We are testing on water content and microbiological content. We like to think of ourselves as a thorough partner in the supply of fresh chicken."
Compass Group is equally stringent on sourcing processed chicken products, where the chicken meat may be from overseas. Crayfourd says high-volume lines such as nuggets for schools are randomly checked at least every two months to check they are meeting the Compass specification.
In the restaurant sector more and more chefs are choosing to buy from specialist farmers who raise on maize or have breeds which have stayed close to thoroughbred bloodlines.
Ellel Free Range Poultry in north Lancashire rears the classic poulet de Bresse breed and supplies restaurants nationwide. Whereas intensively reared chickens can move from egg to abattoir in as little as six weeks, Bresse chicken can take up 17 weeks, which costs more in production but gives a stronger flavour.
While this type of quality chicken is commonly referred to as corn-fed, Ellel owner Richard Charles is scathing about how that description is interpreted. "Making a chicken fillet appear yellow is often just a matter of dye in the feed," he says. "We start our birds off on normal chicken feed, slowly add wheat to the feed and, at 12 weeks, feed only on wheat along with vegetable trimming from local farms."
Charles is proud of the flavour and natural moisture this slow growing puts into his birds, but admits that this comes with a price premium. A 1.8kg whole bird will sell into the restaurant kitchen for about £11, compared with half that price for an intensively reared chicken. n
What's in a name? Chickens described as "free range" must have had outside access for at least half their lives. The description "traditional free range" differs from free range by requiring more extensive open-air access, a lower stocking density and a greater minimum age at slaughter. "Free range - total freedom" has similar requirements, but birds must have unrestricted daytime open-air access.
The term "corn-fed chicken" is not an officially recognised description unless the percentage of corn or maize is also specified as a percentage of the whole feed. It is not illegal to call a chicken corn-fed, even if it has been fed just a small amount for a very short period of its life.
Good practice in farming is not to apply the term corn-fed unless the feed formula given during the greater part of the fattening period contains at least 50% corn or maize. The fattening period is not defined in the regulations but is generally taken to mean the latter half of the chicken's life.