Growing multitudes of birds are being packed into mass meat production facilities because High Street retailers want smaller, younger chickens to sell to customers at lower prices. As many as 19 chickens or more are being squeezed into every square metre of floor space, which some experts say will cause them pain and stress.
Farmers and supermarkets, however, deny that their increasingly intensive production methods are cruel. They point out that animal welfare standards conform to the food industry’s assurance scheme and are much better than they used to be.
But according to Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University in London and a former government advisor, chickens have the most miserable lives on farms. “Probably no animal farmed intensively on earth has a shorter, more captive or controlled life than the broiler chicken,” he said.
“A luxury item six decades ago has become routine tasteless, so-called meat today. And now we witness this new shift to even shorter lives, driven by market changes.”
Lang urged people to question why mass-produced chicken had become so tasteless. “If you want to eat chicken, pay more for the real thing,” he suggested. “Eat it more infrequently to compensate for buying better quality.”
Controversy has been sparked by a bid from a big farm in Fife to boost its production capacity nearly 50 per cent from 340,000 to 500,000 chickens. In an application to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Peacehill Farm on the Firth of Tay says this is because “the supermarkets are requesting lighter birds”.
The farm adds: “The reason for increasing bird places is that due to customer requirements the birds will have a shorter productive life and will be slaughtered at a lighter weight.”
The application says that this will lead to more chickens being kept in the same space, but promises that the stocking density will not exceed 38 kilogrammes per square metre. If the chickens weigh an average of 2kg each, that’s 19 in every square metre.
According to Libby Anderson, policy director at OneKind, an Edinburgh-based animal rights group, this will inevitably hurt the birds. The European Union’s scientific committee on animal welfare concluded that at more 30kg per square metre there was a “steep rise in the frequency of serious problems”.
“The demand for chicken seems to be limitless and we are concerned to see the drive towards greater intensification of this sort,” Anderson said. “The more densely they are stocked, the greater the risk of lameness and painful leg problems, hock and foot burns, and stress.”
She urged people who buy chicken sandwiches from supermarkets to be aware that the meat comes from birds unable to move around freely. “Current guidance is for stocking densities to be lowered, not raised, when birds are being reared to lower slaughter weights, so we can’t see a justification for increasing it here almost to the very upper limit.”
Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), a charity that campaigns to improve animal welfare standards, said it was impossible to provide “an acceptable standard of animal welfare” with a stocking density of 38kg per square metre. “It restricts their ability to be chickens,” stated CIWF’s campaigns director, Dil Peeling.
Crowded conditions inhibited the birds’ natural motivations to peck, to move and to explore, he said. Heavy breasts designed to maximise white meat production accentuated their leg problems, he claimed, and some suffered “sudden death syndrome” due to heart failure.
CIWF’s director of food business, Dr Tracey Jones, argued it was wrong to try and increase the number of chickens per square metre. “Rearing more, lighter weight, birds in a shed will obviously leave them with less space to move around,” she said. “Lighter weight birds are more active and therefore need more space to move around more freely, rather than less space.”
According to the Sunday Herald food writer and supermarket expert, Joanna Blythman, supermarkets wanted smaller chickens because they could sell more of them at lower prices. “People don’t pay a lot of attention to weight,” she said. “Lighter chickens seem cheaper even though it’s the same price per kilo.”
She pointed out that Tesco had previously come under fire for selling small whole chickens for as little as £1.99 each in 2008. The supermarket chain was attacked at the time by farmers for short-changing suppliers and by animal welfare groups for encouraging factory farming, though it disputed the allegations.
Tesco insisted last week that it had not been requesting farmers to produce smaller chickens. But according to a company spokesman, the chickens it sold ranged from a tiny 0.9kg to 2.7kg “in order to offer customers a choice”.
Morrisons, however, accepted that there was a growing consumer demand for smaller and lighter chickens because they are cheaper. “People are feeling the pinch because of the recession and that drives retailers to get a wider variety of chickens,” said a company spokesman. “It’s a cost decision – they want cheaper chickens.”
This was backed up by the British Poultry Council, which represents chicken farmers and processors. Supermarkets were wanting smaller birds because of “changing consumer demand”, said chief executive, Andrew Large.
“The rise in smaller families and one-person households means the larger sized bird required for a family Sunday roast is less popular in 2014 than before.” He stressed, as did Tesco and Morrisons, that the chickens were all produced in accordance with the industry’s ‘Red Tractor’ assurance scheme.
“Birds raised to Red Tractor standards have access to everything they need, including sufficient light, heat, water and food,” Large claimed. But critics pointed out that the standards allow stocking densities up to 38kg per square metre, at which there was clear evidence of harm.
Sainsbury’s has adopted the higher ‘Freedom Food’ standards, which are run by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They only allow a maximum stocking density of 30kg per square metre for chickens.
The National Union of Farmers in Scotland stressed that there should be no implications for animal welfare as long as strict guidelines were followed. If the chickens were smaller, there may be more of them but they would still be allowed the same space per kilogramme, argued the union’s animal health and welfare policy manager, Penny Johnston.
“At a time when the poultry sector is under a lot of pressure with changes to the processing capacity, it is promising to see a farm like Peacehill Farm, developing and expanding its operations in response to demand,” she added.
“There are codes of recommendations from the UK government on poultry welfare that producers must conform to. As well as this, if producers are supplying supermarkets there will also be set guidelines that must be met which have been set by the retailer itself.”
'These are happy chickens'
When Peter Forster opened the shed door, there were chickens: 21,000 of them in constant motion for as far as the eye could see. Fluffy, pale, pecking, sitting, standing, teeming, they covered the sawdust floor like an endlessly writhing carpet.
“These are happy chickens,” said the 63-year old Fife farmer. “They are like people after a rugby match, jammed together in a bar.” He nudged up close to make the point.
Peacehill Farm spreads out over a hill overlooking the Tay rail bridge across to Dundee. Forster and his family have run it since 1926, and have kept chickens for the last 28 years.
At the moment they have up to 340,000 birds in 11 industrial-sized sheds. On Friday they were all 21 days old, most of them more than halfway through their short lives.
In a few days, Forster explained, they would be “thinned” and about a quarter sent away for slaughter. The rest would grow for a few more days and then be harvested en masse, before they reach the grand old age of 42 days.
But these days 340,000 chickens are not enough, he said. Peacehill Farm has told the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) that it wants to alter its operating permit to allow up to 500,000 chickens.
For a start, that means that the shed full of 21,000 chickens will have to accommodate 29,000 chickens. But the birds will be younger, smaller and lighter to ensure that they never exceed the food industry’s assurance standard of 38 kilogrammes per square metre.
According to Forster, that equates to 16-19 chickens per square metre, depending on their weight. The main reason the farm is seeking to boost its numbers is because supermarkets are insisting on ever-smaller chickens.
Forster is not a fan of supermarkets. “The clever thing they do is to confuse the consumer,” he said, pointing out that though the price of whole chickens had stayed roughly the same for years, the average weight had plummeted.
“The industry is getting hammered on price,” he said. Plus, retailers would never say on their packaging which chicken came from Scotland, because they didn’t want to advertise the fact that 40 per cent came from Thailand, Brazil or elsewhere abroad.
Forster is proud of the conditions in which his chickens are kept, pointing to the double-glazed windows that have recently been installed in the sheds to give the birds natural light. Only about one per cent was dying prematurely - amounting to 3,000 or more chickens.
“We’ve got as good a chicken farm as anywhere else in Scotland,” he said. He showed off the brand new wood-chip boilers that are now heating the sheds, in place of diesel generators. In the last 12 months, he has invested about £1.5 million in the improvements.
The rising demand for smaller chickens was something Peacehill Farm had to respond to in order to survive as a business. “The farm will be supplying multiple customers with a wider range of birds weights than we have historically,” Forster told the Sunday Herald.
He regretted, however, having to publicise his application to Sepa by putting an advert in the local paper. He was worried that this would prompt a raid from animal rights “nutters”, pointing out that there had been an attempted break-in two or three years ago.
Forster’s 34-year-old son, Ross, who lives on the farm with his wife and three – soon to be four - young children, shares his father’s belief that their chickens are well looked after. “The welfare standards have never been higher,” he said.
The full application from Peacehill Farm to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency can be downloaded here (2.3MB pdf).