BBC News: Do people know where their chicken comes from?

Campaigners say chicken meat needs better labelling. How much do people really know about the life of a chicken before it reaches their plate?

A long, low, metal shed, fed by large plastic drums, pipes and chimneys – to the layman it looks like a small chemical plant. Hidden in the folds of the Peak District, it’s an incongruous sight. The only hint that living things are housed inside is the pungent smell from the extractor fan – like a mixture of a pet shop and manure.

The facility is not a paint or fertiliser factory. It is called Lower Farm and produces chickens. In a period of between 33 and 38 days, the chicks grow to an average weight of 2.2kg – ready to be slaughtered. Lower Farm, just outside Chesterfield, is not what most of us would think of as a farm. It is run by a poultry company called Applied Group, which operates two other farms. The chickens never go outside. Everything happens in four large sheds. The interiors of the sheds are continuously filmed and key statistics recorded – every litre the birds drink, every 10kg of feed that has been dispatched by the feeder mechanism, how much the birds weigh. Lower Farm produces 1.25 million chickens a year.

Nearly all chicken meat eaten in the UK comes from a place like Lower Farm. “This intensive chicken farming goes on behind closed doors,” says Dil Peeling, campaigns director at charity Compassion in World Farming (CWF) . “It’s hidden from people. They still have this image of chickens scratching around in a farmyard.”

Cockerels drinking from drinkers in rearing shed, Cumbria

Free-range accounts for 5% and organic 1% of UK chicken production, according to the British Poultry Council. The remaining 94% comes from intensively reared birds.

This is in stark contrast to eggs, where free-range and organic togethermake up 45% of UK production. Of the eggs bought in shops by consumers – as opposed to eggs used in processed food – free-range is now half of the market.

Egg-buying habits have changed radically. Farmers respond to consumer demand and free-range eggs accounted for just 11% of production in 1994. Ten years ago it was still only 27%. There’s been no such shift on meat chickens. It’s not uncommon to see free-range eggs advertised in sandwiches. Pret A Manger uses them. But its chicken sandwiches are not free-range but “higher welfare” indoor-reared chicken.

Egg production and chicken meat are separate industries. Since the 1950s two distinct chickens have been bred by the farming industry – laying hens for eggs and broiler chickens for meat. Sophisticated breeding means that every year a broiler chicken lives one day less to deliver the same weight of food, the RSPCA estimates.

They may be separate industries, but why do so many more people buy free-range eggs than free-range chickens? CWF recently ran a 39-day campaign – the average lifespan of an intensive broiler – to call for a chicken’s method of production to be clearly labelled.

Packets of Simply M&S skinless & boneless thighs

Cost is probably the main reason. There is a bigger price hike in free-range for chicken meat than for eggs. At Sainsbury’s, breast fillets – the most commonly bought chicken – vary from £6.95 per kg for Basics fillet portions, to £12.99 for standard, to £14.95 for free-range, to £19 for organic free-range.

Excluding the fillet portions, there is still a difference of almost £2 per kg between intensive and free-range, and more than £6 per kg between intensive and organic. Six Basics eggs cost 90p, while half-a-dozen free-range eggs cost £1.35 and organic £2. This means it costs 50% more for free-range eggs – a significant price hike.

But because eggs are fairly cheap items, it perhaps doesn’t seem so bad, just an extra 45p to go for free-range. Opting for free-range chicken breasts works out at £1.96 more expensive. “You’ve probably got to be quite committed to trade up for meat – not to mention affluent – but the difference in eggs isn’t so painful to the pocket,” says Richard Griffiths, director of policy at the British Poultry Council.


Chicken statistics

Chicken on supermarket shelf
  • 50 billion chickens worldwide
  • 116 million broilers in the UK and 29 million laying hens
  • 750 million broilers slaughtered annually in the UK

Sources: CWF, Defra

To read the full article, click here:

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