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Free as a bird?

After Channel 4's expose of chicken hell, are you fed up with people telling us what to eat? Or does battery food make you retch?

Published on January 10th 2008.

Free as a bird?

Anne Benson says chicken on the cheap is a false economy

I get this argument all the time, why should I pay more for one free-range/organic chicken when I can get, at least, two for £5 at my local supermarket: Don’t you know I have a family to feed? On a budget?

Eat a free-range or
an organic chicken once and you will never look back,
I promise you.
If it means chicken becomes more
of a treat than
an everyday
food, so be it

Let's start with some statistics. The average supermarket chicken contains nearly a pint of water, and a pint of water weighs over 1lb.

In the average 35 days of its miserable life (this is half the time it took to mature 30 years ago), your fast growing supermarket chicken's meat often contains as much fat as a Big Mac.

You do the maths, and the pound-for-pound argument which says that intensively reared meat is better value than the free range or organic starts to collapse.

The places these intensely-reared chickens spend their short lives are not for the squeamish. In a typical shed, you can get around 25,000 birds all packed together with no natural light. “Night time” lasts just four hours a day as this encourages the chickens to sleep less and eat more. They start to peck each other, fight, and become more and more aggressive.

Your intensively reared chicken can also contain traces of antibiotics, have hock burns from standing in its own excrement and bones so spongy they can be minced up to make hot dogs.

Farmers rearing them can often expect to be paid just 3p a bird by supermarkets.

So why do it? Well, we all love breast meat don’t we? So the more we can fatten chickens up on the cheap, the better. That is the theory anyway, but let’s get down to the real point. These birds don’t taste of anything; they are floury, tasteless and worthless.

The fact that chickens don't get any exercise, means they put on a huge quantity of fat.

There are now more calories from fat in the average chicken than from protein. And the fat is impossible to avoid because much of it is under the skin and soaks into the meat during cooking.

Eat a free-range/organic chicken once and you will never look back, I promise you. If it means chicken becomes more of a treat than an everyday food so be it. Give me one delicious, juicy free-range chicken baked in its juices, bursting with flavour, over sawdust anytime.

If cost is still the issue, think about how much you can get from one chicken. A roast one day, then use the leftovers for a risotto or stir-fry, then take the carcass and create a great soup (including the giblets). Already you have just got three dishes out of one bird. Add more vegetables and have less meat and it is even a healthier option.

Indulge, celebrate, enjoy and know that what you are eating is not filling your belly with chemicals and watery rubbish but just beautiful, satisfying taste.

Anne Benson is chairman of Wirral Farmers’ Market and one of the organisers of the Wirral Food and Drink Festival.

We don't know how lucky we are, says Jennifer Eccles

I remember chicken as a huge treat when I was younger, and I'm not going back to the War either. I'm thinking of the 1980s. We were Thatcher's offspring and, dwelling in the unemployment wasteland that was Knowsley, there was precious little money to spend on luxuries. For most, chicken was as rare as hens' teeth.

But how times have changed. Increased production technology means good, cheap food is available to all. Chicken is one of the best sources of protein there is, and with prices as low as £2 for a whole bird, it is now within reach of most people with mouths to feed.

It is healthier than red meat and versatile too. Even if an intensively reared chicken is lacking a bit in flavour, surely that's not the point if you've got hungry bellies. And everyone can add a bit of seasoning!

We really don't know how lucky we are. I'm not about to go on about the starving millions in Africa, or to start saying “for what we are about to receive”, but don't you think this stuff about only buying free range and organic all sounds a bit elitist and, well, ungrateful?

Are animals really more important than people? I think we should grow more chickens in the barns and try to feed the world this cheap, wholesome protein

Are animals really more important than people? I think we should grow more chickens in the barns and try to feed the world this cheap, wholesome protein.

Around 90 per cent of us clearly can see sense on this, which is why we go for the obvious option. People don't give a damn if their Saturday night chow mein, or their sandwiches for school have come from a feathered friend which has had a nice life pecking about in the woods or not. Not when they've got a massive mortgage to worry about.

And you can tut-tut about Bernard Matthews and Turkey Twizzlers, but you might well find that your posh organic chicken that you've just lashed £8 on has come from none other than Guess Who. It's a lucrative and cynical business.

Free range chickens aren't really free range anyway. Some are housed in a huge shed with just a small opening into the outside world, the size of an A4 sheet of paper, miles away, especially if there are 10,000 other chickens obscuring the view! Others are often more diseased than battery birds, owing to drinking from waterholes contaminated by faeces. And don't even get me started on the risk of a bird flu epidemic starting among outdoor flocks.

Let's be realistic: The slaughter of any animal is not a nice business. You either eat meat or you don't.

So forget whatever your chicken is meant to be pumped up with, this really is the only argument that holds water.

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27 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Pig from Animal FarmJanuary 10th 2008.

I think Caroline that you'll find some animals are more equal than others

JenJenJanuary 10th 2008.

We like to shop from our local butcher to help support local trade but when trying his chicken we couldn't belive how 'chickeny' it tasted and how meaty the texture. In my experience it is also a myth that butchers all are more expensive, our butchers meat works out at the same price as Supermarkets standard prices (when not on offer). You may need to hunt around to find this but it does exist. Therefore, for me and my boyfriend there is absolutely no comparison. Ensuring the more humane treatment of animals, helping your local tradesmen, supporting your local community and at the same time enjoying nicer meat without having to spend a great deal more money. On Jennifers point of view - it is very selfish to say it feeds us when we're hungry. We're not being spoilt and elitist - an animal has DIED for us to eat, the least we can do is ensure it has had a happy life.

Julie FJanuary 10th 2008.

H5N1 Avian Influenza just confirmed in wild birds in Dorset!!!

Uh-ohJanuary 10th 2008.

Jennifer's argument seems to be "if we have the technology - why not". We have the technology to do lots of things these days, it doesn't necessarily mean we should. Yes, the majority buy cheap chicken, but I wonder how much this figure would drop if every supermarket was running the tape shown in the Sainsbury's towards the end of last night's program showing how the 2 for a fiver chicken was bred. I'll admit to turning a blind eye to it before, but having seen just how bad it gets (and that was battery farming by someone who actually cared about the welfare of the chickens)I won't be in the future. The so called modern production technolgy is just another process where the supermarket chains have increased their profit margins whilst driving down those of the farmers and without any real regard as to the quality of the product supplied to the customer. Its not to bring more food to the masses, its to make more money. You may have had chicken less when you were younger - you probably enjoyed it more too. But then perhaps we should continue to blithly follow Jennifer's quantity over quality technology driven solutions - and ignore any concerns as to animal welfare in our modern society. Perhaps we can genetically modify a chicken so it doesnt have feathers and feed them and bring the cost down a bit more... and bring on those growth hormones too, that should make your Sunday roast even cheaper too. Supermarkets have eroded the general public's acceptable level of food standards to nothing - and Jennifer seems to be a shining example of the suckers they have made of us.

PigJanuary 10th 2008.

Caroline...I think you might have missed out on your education somewhere. Pig from Animal Farm (the book by George Orwell) was making a literary and political reference. Give it go dear, most people read it at school, you might have missed out of course. I'm a anarcho-syndicalist unitarian myself. Free the chickens I say. But which came first the demand or the battery eggs?

SpawnMeister666January 10th 2008.

I think for me the highlight was the look on Hugh F.W's face on the final day of his 'Chicken Out' campaign when he saw one of the people from his estate project still buying the special offer chicken, despite having been made aware of how barbaric the rearing process is.It just shows that some people wont change, regardless, but as a way of informing the masses of how their food was treated it was superb television....Seeing him cry at the idea of having to cull a chicken that was being bred to be killed was also one of those moments that you know is going to be shown for years to come!I think I may have to have words with one of my favorite bands, Merry Men from Burnley, and get them to change the chorus to one of their best songs to:"We want (free range) chicken"Spawny

CarolineJanuary 10th 2008.

Hi Pig, no my education was and is excellent, school, college and uni and of course life itself ! I guess you must just be one of those life forms that thinks it is better than everything else....most of all it seems a defenceless animal...hmmm say no more, your attitude says it all !....I'm leaving this discussion now as I actually have a life so pig just try to find some compassion in your heart...oh, you do have one don't you ?????

LianeJanuary 10th 2008.

Caroline - I really don't think Pig intended to have a go at you. His comment was a based on a quotation from a famous political allegory (and thus a witticism, rather than an affirmation of the sentiment).

TrickyJanuary 10th 2008.

Yes, intensively reared chicken tastes gross compared to its cosseted, “Free range, organic” cousin. Let’s just move on from that part of the argument, because it’s a given. Personally, I eat free range/organic chicken because I’ve got a conscience (damn it), and I don’t want to have to answer any tricky questions at the pearly gates, as to why I knowingly ate a bird that led a hideously cruel existence, before it turned up on my plate. This can be taken too far though. I’m not really interested in whether or not it had its feathers massaged thrice daily, or lived on a beautiful mountain in Scotland – nobody needs to know that much about their food. As long as it was free to peck and roam freely to its hearts content, that’ll do me nicely. But please, let’s not get too sniffy or judgemental, about those amongst us who can’t afford the luxury of organic chicken. Lets be blunt, it is relatively expensive meat, and if you’re on £118.30 a fortnight Income Support, you’re probably not going to be able to stretch to that even once a week (it’s a lovely idea, but not everyone wants stir fry or risotto afterwards to make it more economical Anne). The programme (whilst difficult to watch) was valuable, because it’s given people the facts to make an informed decision on which meat they choose to eat. Prior to being aired, I’m not sure that the majority of people really understood how barbaric some of the processes were, so for this alone, it was must see TV.

AnonymousJanuary 10th 2008.

Me and my girlfriend talked about our new year resolutions over Christmas, and one of them was to eat better. By that, I mean seasonal veg, organic where possible, and better meat. This programme just makes it easier for us to go through with this as my girlfriend now refuses to buy non-free range... Perhaps this programme should become compulsory in schools during Science lessons, that's the only way we'll get change

SpawnMeister666January 10th 2008.

Having watched the Channel 4 'Chicken Run' show throughout, one thing I was stuck with was just how much of a difference it made to the people who actually got a glance at just how these animals are treated, with some of the hardcore anti-free range brigade becoming commited free range activists almost overnight....We are supposed to be a nation of animal lovers, yet we treat animals we intend to eat disgracefully....I'm almost tempted to make the switch myself after that programme!Spawny

famafJanuary 10th 2008.

What a load of old to55 from the 'I like eating chemicals, lets feed them to the world' lady.I've got a cheap form of protein for you - ever tried chickpeas?!Granted many people, myself included, operate on a small budget, but that isn't an excuse to fill the thing that keeps you alive with muck.I buy smaller quantities of top class meat and savour every bite.When I've finished I feel happy, healthy and full of nutrition.When I eat cheap produce, an emptiness permeates my mind, body and soul.Ever noticed still feeling strangely hungry after a McDonalds, even if you're not sure you could eat another thing?That's because there's nothing in it.Just like there's nothing of value in cheap chicken.Why do people talk about home cooking?Because food isn't the only ingredient in the things we eat.Love seeps in there, so you can taste the difference in a well prepared meal.You know when your wife/mother has cooked for you, and you can taste the happiness when that little bird gives over its life, spent outside in daylight, so that you may keep breathing.

Julie FJanuary 10th 2008.

I think there should definitely be a free range option in all supermarkets, and there already is in all of them, so every consumer has choice. You can't knock the passion Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall clearly has for his birds and his way of life, in an ideal world (Which it isn't) we'd all purchase Free range chicken but the average shopper just can't afford free range. Supermarkets are driven by consumer demand and unfortunately the consumer demands 'low low prices'. I was not shocked by the intensive programme, the birds were looked after and humanely culled where necessary conditions may have looked cramped but cameras are very good at giving an 'opinioned' viewpoint. I'm sorry but with a whole host of diseases can be picked up from the great outdoors and the threat of a human variant of Avian Influenza hanging over us; personally,I feel that intensive indoor farming is a safer option for mankind.

Frank's TrousersJanuary 10th 2008.

Liane - completely agree with you - the people in the programme banging on about having no money clearly had enough to spend the night proppping up the bar in their local pub (clutching a packet of fags) - if they'd have sacrificed just ONE pint they could have made the switch to a free range chicken!

Rachel BJanuary 10th 2008.

Ugh the thought of eating spongey battery chicken meat makes me feel sick. I don't know how people can eat something that they know full well has suffered the way those animals do. I have no issues wiuth eating meat, but I think that we have a responsibility to treat the animals we eat with respect. I for one much prefer to eat less chicken (due to the price of free range) but happier chickens that I know did not have a life of misery because I wanted to have sunday dinner.

forrestJanuary 10th 2008.

I bought a free range caper chicken from frosts in chorlton for crhistmas dinner, it cost me 3 times what a normal chicken would, but by jimminy by jove it was 10 times better on taste, texture and happy eaters. I watched chicken run, was suprised at the reaction to intense farming, surely everyone has seen this through milk production in the UK?I will advise that my shopping consists of free-range/organic due to the taste benefits. Amazing taste compared to battery chickens. so there.

elliot aged 9 (vegetarian)January 10th 2008.

DONT EAT MEAT ITS CRUEL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

CarolineJanuary 10th 2008.

No, animals are not more important than humans but they are just as Important as humans....we'd be lost without them in so many areas of our lives so we at the very least owe them a decent life ! Who exactly was it that decided we were superior to animals anyway look at the mess we've made of evrything humans touch .....!!!

CarolineJanuary 10th 2008.

Well pig I beg to differ...unless of course you have a different meaning to the word equal than the rest of us!

Not mentalJanuary 10th 2008.

chickens are as thick as pig ****. Let them die. Eat the sods. Anyway, why don't we eat pigeons off Piccadilly gardens? They look a tasty treat to me.

LianeJanuary 10th 2008.

I'm with Anne Benson. Jennifer Eccles' argument of "either eat meat or don't - caring about how they're raised is elitist [sorry for the blunt paraphrasing]" is a heavily quantitative one. And archaic. It's slipping backwards. It reminds me of the angry old folks moaning about Hugh F-W on the TV last night, without actually looking at the details. I think there's room between veggie and non-veggie to eat meat without being a complete oaf about it. I love animals and I donate to animal charities (along with millions of others) because I care about their welfare - but I'm not a veggie. A quick, humanely-executed death doesn't upset me. Seeing animals crawl around in their own faeces and barely able to move for six weeks does. As displayed in the programme, many of the people who buy cheap chickens don't even use the whole thing. If they bought a free-range one for a couple of quid more - and used it for two meals, instead of one (wasting the carcass) - it'd be better economy all-round. It's less than the price of a pint. And now I WILL sound like an oaf (sorry)... but the lady banging about needing to feed her kids wasn't exactly malnourished, was she...?

AnonymousJanuary 10th 2008.

Julie F for a safer mankind or at least to avoid H5N1 we would have to kill all migratory birds and for humans to avoid all travel outside of the country. Hardly a decent argument for battery farming.

suzJanuary 10th 2008.

For those who can't afford free-range, eat it less often and eat cheaper (non-meat foods) more often, like in times gone by when meat was a luxury not an everyday food.

AnonymousJanuary 10th 2008.

Jennifer, check your facts before you comment. Soil Association (one of the organic certifiers) have maximum flock sizes of 1000 birds (recommended 500). I will agree with you that 'free range' is not always worth it as the standards aren't as strict as for organic. I'm failing to see how drinking water contaminated with faeces makes a worse chicken than living in their own faeces their entire life, as many non organic/free range chickens do! Also, will the price difference really be life or death to the average person?Do you have any stats to back up your 'often more diseased'? And need we remind ourselves that the bird flu before the recent one was inside an intensive 'bio secure' turkey 'factory'. I'd recommend you read "What really goes into the food on your plate" and see what you think then.

NikJanuary 10th 2008.

I wonder how many people who buy battery meat actually buy free-range eggs? A conscience isn't such a bad thing.. and Jennfier - honestly - if your going to make an argument for battery meat, can you at least make it add up - either your unemployed in Knowsley or have such a massive mortgage and 10 kids that you can't afford another £2 for a decent life for the bird your planning on eating - what once every couple of weeks? There are so many holes in your argument I can't even believe this complete tosh was published!

joJanuary 10th 2008.

been vegan for 20 years and noticing that all the arguments for it that used to be looked on as weird and sandal wearing are now mainatream!

PhilJanuary 10th 2008.

Why is there always one idiot that wants to add pointless comments like above? Why bother reading the article if you feel like that?

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