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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall campaign against intensively farmed chickens

24 January 2008 by

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall seems to have captured the hearts and minds of British shoppers with his TV campaign against intensively farmed chicken. Will he have as much success in the catering sector?

Watch an exclusive webcast from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall here >>

There's a glaring inconsistency among this country's dining public, says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The same customers who might visit a top-end restaurant of an evening and show interest in - often expect - the good provenance of their meal, will often pop out to a local deli at lunchtime and, without thinking, pick up a chicken sandwich made from meat produced on an intensive farm. And why? Because standard chicken has become a cheap, exploited commodity. "Cheap chicken has become a bread-and-butter product in the catering industry because a lot of outlets expect to make quite a big margin on it," Fearnley-Whittingstall says.

His campaign against intensive chicken farming in this country was launched earlier this month. Three TV programmes, run on consecutive nights, featured the River Cottage star setting up and running both a free-range farm and a "standard" chicken operation and showing the general public the short and unhappy life intensively reared birds endure.

Fearnley-Whittingstall went by the letter of the law in his intensive farm, keeping the chickens crammed in 17 per square metre and starved of natural daylight. When juxtaposed with the free-range alternative, it seemed a horrific price to pay for discounted meat - especially when one considered that the barn would need only a slightly reduced number of birds and a modest level of environmental stimulus to significantly improve welfare.

So far the campaign has been largely aimed at changing the buying habits of the consumer, but this, Fearnley-Whittingstall says, is merely the start. "There are several reasons we pursued supermarkets first," he explains. "It's an easy way of getting consumers to vote with their spend, because supermarkets already offer a choice of different welfare birds. So if you want to show them you want free-range birds, you can easily do so.

"However, the catering industry is going to be more challenging. Take take-aways for example: information about the provenance of chickens is negligible to non-existent in the vast majority of these places. Often these birds are at best ACP certified at worst they come from the fly-by-night end of the poultry industry, but people rarely think about it and businesses want to turn a profit."

!Hugh and chickens
*Photograph by Guy Drayton*

Cost pressures

The reason behind this reliance on cheap chicken is, of course, the desire to drive down costs, but Fearnley-Whittingstall says that restaurateurs who offer the public cheap chicken at the expense of the animal are making a huge assumption. "Musa [one of the people featured in the TV programmes], who runs the kebab shop in Axminster, gave it to me straight: he said people were hungry when they came out of the pub and the last thing on their mind was whether their chickens were free-range. That's a fair point but there's an assumption that that statement is true across the board - whatever level of the business you are at and regardless of whether or not the customer is drunk."

Customers can be categorised into certain groups, Fearnley-Whittingstall adds: people who don't care about the welfare of their meat people who take notice only once the issue has been raised those who eat cheap chicken because of a lack of alternatives and those who actively seek out higher-welfare produce.

Many customers who are aware of the issues surrounding chicken farming often eat cheap chicken only because of a lack of alternative. "These people will admit with mild embarrassment that they do care about these things but they also go for a post-pub kebab and put it out of their mind. But they shouldn't have to do this - there's a huge potential for the industry to market to these people."

As part of the campaign, Fearnley-Whittingstall convinced businesses in Axminster to offer free-range alternatives and the reaction from many customers who had only ever eaten intensively farmed chicken was very positive. Many were willing to pay extra for the higher standard of produce.

"I think that saying, ‘My customers aren't interested in free-range meat' is a sweeping statement that starts to fall apart when you analyse it," he says.

The first thing Fearnley-Whittingstall wants to see is a consistency throughout the industry. "Take some of the higher-end chains: people there seem to think it's important to support the ethics of free-range egg production. I can assure you that intensively reared meat birds have just as miserable a life as battery hens, even if there are no cages involved. To support one and not the other is inconsistent, arguably hypocritical and arguably cynical. You can say it is cynical for McDonald's to sell free-range eggs but not free-range chicken meat. They're getting the credit for caring for a product where the margins of mark-up work for their business but they're continuing to serve intensively farmed chicken meat because they've yet to work out a way of making those margins work."

In fact, Fearnley-Whittingstall would be over the moon to see a big company such as McDonald's upgrade its chicken. "I believe they could launch a big campaign, tell the world they've gone free-range - or at least Freedom Foods - then market that fact. I think people would really applaud that."

It's not just the lower and middle sectors of the industry that Fearnley-Whittingstall hopes to change he's aiming for the top as well. "In some cases I know chefs, not naming names, at the very high-end sector who are not using free-range birds. Some of them are on the road to Michelin stars."

Such chefs are, of course, greatly in the minority but he feels there are still some who put egos before produce. "One occasionally hears a chef bragging that it's not the quality of the produce but what they do with it. The argument is wearing thin and these chefs are a dying breed now that the top end of the industry has come to learn the importance of provenance. If you listen to Marco Pierre White now he says Mother Nature is the true artist. That puts him in a different place from 10-15 years ago, when he'd probably have liked you to think that he was the true artist."

If hospitality took up Fearnley-Whittingstall's challenge to go free-range, would the poultry industry be able to adapt? "It would take a while," he admits. "New production sites can be put up in a couple of months, but it's also about the breeding stock it'll take much longer to raise numbers. But it is possible to upgrade the bottom end of the industry to better welfare standards very quickly."

The campaign has been something of a pincer movement, with Fearnley-Whittingstall lobbying consumers and businesses to switch to free-range, while friend and fellow celebrity chef Jamie Oliver lobbies for better conditions at the bottom of the industry. While converting the UK to 100% free-range would be ideal - although slightly unlikely - is the realistic aim to meet somewhere in the middle?

"When you think that only 3% of chicken production in this country is free-range, that's horribly out of proportion. In France it is about 20-30%. If we can get 50% of intensive farming upgraded to higher welfare and to have free-range climbing to 10%, then 20%, and ultimately, in five years' time, to 30% of the market, then that will mean a better life for hundreds of millions of chickens."

The immediate concern is to ensure commit­ment to free-range from consumers and businesses doesn't die down when the buzz of the campaign recedes. Already more than 100,000 people have pledged to switch to free-range at the campaign website, www.chickenout.tv, while Indian restaurant group Tiffinbites became the first big business to switch all its chicken to free-range, at a personal cost of £150,000 a year to owner Jamal Hirani.

The campaign still has a long way to go, and the industry has a vital part to play, says Fearnley-Whittingstall. To show this, he hopes to film a follow-up programme in a few months, featuring hospitality businesses that have made the switch to free-range.

At the heart of this campaign are not just the lives of millions of chickens. At its real centre is the question of what we are prepared to pay for our food and how comfortably we sit with the notion of a meat industry based on the mechanised productivity of factory settings. If Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is able to bring about change the poultry industry, would he consider taking the campaign to other meats? "Chicken and pigs are certainly at the front of welfare issues, but it's one thing at a time for now," he says. "We're focused squarely on chicken, and trying to stop people thinking of it as a commodity like beans or flour."

Conditions for standard meat chickens

More than 850 million broiler chickens are slaughtered every year in the UK. Of this number more than 95% are reared in industrial conditions in vast, enclosed sheds. These standard chickens are grown from newly hatched chicks to oven-ready birds in just 39 days (an organic chicken, which grows at a natural pace, takes more than twice as long).

To achieve this, poultry scientists have bred chickens which grow quickly. As they grow, their living space - smaller than an A4 piece of paper for each bird - gets more and more cramped as they near the end of their lives. With about 17 birds packed into each square metre they lack adequate space to walk, preen themselves, stretch their wings or turn around easily.

Such cramped conditions and rapid growth cause severe welfare problems. Chronic lameness is common - one-third of chickens have difficulty walking without pain. The stress on their hearts and lungs can cause heart failure. About 5% die or have to be culled prematurely. A typical chicken shed holds 40,000 birds, none of which sets foot outside or sees natural light. They feed around the clock - with as little as one hour of darkness for every 24-hour period. Once they are slaughtered they can sell to supermarkets for a profit to the producer of as little as 3p a bird.

Free-range in fast food?

"No, I don't do free-range kebabs any more it was costing me a fortune," said Musa, owner of the Axminster kebab shop, when we popped in last week.

Of course, it's more expensive to buy free-range. According to Glenn Eastwood, general manager (catering) at Birtwistle Butchers, prices have increased by 20% in the past two weeks and on average the price per kg is between £5 and £6, against £1.65 to £1.85 per kg for standard birds. The key cut that the catering industry requires is the chicken breast, which costs £3.40 to £3.90 per breast from a free-range bird, compared with £1 to £1.20 from a standard bird. The price of the breasts will cover the cost of a whole bird, and the legs will equate to profit, meaning that legs and thighs (if available) are a cheap option.

Khalid Ishmael, who owns curry caterers Ishmael's Mother, says that the thighs are the only real option for a restaurant wanting to cook an authentic, rich curry.

However, by far the most effective method of purchase is for caterers to buy the full bird. Drew Wilkinson runs Shelford Delicatessen in Cambridge and uses only free-range chicken. He buys in whole chickens at £6.25 per kg and sells roast chicken sandwiches at £2.40. He admits that once he has factored in the cost of bread and salad the profit margins aren't huge, but the advantages and profit come from using the whole bird as the legs and carcasses are used to make casseroles and other such dishes.

If a sandwich shop were determined to use just the breast, the price difference should not be huge, despite Musa's claim that he would have to double prices because the cost of the chicken had doubled.

There is an argument to suggest that because free-range chicken is a richer, meatier alternative, less is needed in a sandwich to achieve a quality taste. But even without factoring this in, a chicken sandwich of £3, with 50p spent on bread and salad and £1 spent on standard chicken breast, with a profit of £1.50, would need a price rise of 210% on the meat (the difference between the cost of standard chicken breast at £1.75 and free-range at £3.65) to see the same profit. So £1 spent on chicken would become £2.10 putting the overall cost of the sandwich at £4.10, achieving the same profit. Hardly asking the earth for a better sandwich and better welfare for the unlucky chicken.

Grades of chicken"Standard" ACP-certified meat chickens
- Birds in each square metre: 17 - Age at slaughter: 39-40 days - How birds' environment must be enriched: None required - Free-range/outdoor access? No - Level of leg injury: Hock burns (leg ulcers) shouldn't be present in more than 15%
RSPCA Freedom Food
- Birds in each square metre: 14 - Age at slaughter: 49 days - How birds' environment must be enriched: Straw bales, pecking objects and perches - Free-range/outdoor access? No - Level of leg injury: Foot pad burns/hock burns in no more than 4% of birds Free-range - Birds in each square metre: 13 - Age at slaughter: 56 days - How birds' environment must be enriched: Must have outdoor life for at least half their existence - Free-range/outdoor access? Yes - Level of leg injury: N/A Organic - Birds in each square metre: 10-14 - Age at slaughter: 81 days - How birds' environment must be enriched: Must have outdoor life for at least half their existence and access to vegetation - Free-range/outdoor access? Yes - Level of leg injury: N/A

Chicken Out!

• For more information on the Chicken Out! Campaign and to pledge your support, visit www.chickenout.tv or visit catersearch.com/chickenout for hospitality-related information on the campaign and an exclusive webcast from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

• Has your business gone free-range, or is it hoping to go free-range in the near future? E-mail tom.vaughan@rbi.co.uk to be considered as part of the Chicken Out! campaign.

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