Review of Hugh's Chicken Run

Posted by Conor O'Neill on Sunday, January 13, 2008

This is less of a review and more of a vote of support. Last week Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall kicked off a campaign to get people eating Free Range Chicken. He did this through a series of compelling programmes comparing intensively raised chicken production with Free Range.

Because no-one would let him film in a “normal” chicken production unit, he was forced to build his own. He split it down the middle with half as free range and half as intensive. Watching the differences become more and more apparent as the birds grew was a real eye-opener for me. Whilst we mainly buy free range, I had started to become dubious about the differences when I saw the same producer names on both types. But after watching this, I’m a total convert.

Quite simply, the methods used to intensively rear chicken are disgusting. If you want to eat meat that has been sitting in its own shit for its entire 39 day life, go right ahead but apart from any issues of animal welfare, if you want to see where Bird Flu will make the leap to humans in Europe, that’s where it’ll be.

Hugh’s campaign to get shops and restaurants in Axminster using free range were reasonably successful even in Tesco and the local kebab shop. His efforts with a local working-class community  to rear their own birds, whilst laudable, teetered on the brink of condescending. However the emotional scenes during slaughter did drive home the reality of where your meat comes from.

I’d love to know how many people who eat frankenstein chicken also support a ban on fois gras. I know which one I have a much bigger problem with.

I did think the focus on whole birds was mis-directed. Most people only eat a full bird once a week. My feeling is that the bulk of chicken sold is skinless chicken breasts and ready-meals. This obsession with breast meat should be tackled too since it addresses the issue of cost head on. We have 1KG of free range drumsticks sitting in the fridge. They cost €4.99 and will give us a fabulous meal when we roast them up in the oven with some spicy coatings.

One thing that interests me hugely is the numbers angle for a company like Tesco. Looking at it as a simple punter, surely pushing higher margin products like free-range benefits the bottom line? Whilst in the 70’s and 80’s when everyone was broke, price wars on a loaf of bread could cause people to change supermarket, is that really the case nowadays? I find it bizarre that somewhere like Tesco Wilton will be jammed with “Value” chicken plus a few exorbitant organic ones whilst being out of stock of free range constantly. Increasing demand for free-range will increase supply and drive down cost and hopefully make the Frankenstein Chicken just a short term historical aberration.

I was a bit shocked to see the Tesco manger in Hugh’s programme using a green-screen VDU. I assumed all their real-time analytics would be in multiple large screen dashboards showing exactly what was happening where in the shop. Maybe that’s why Wilton rarely has free range?

There is surely a huge PR coup to be had by the first supermarket which goes 100% free range on chicken and eggs whilst using the “animal welfare and customer health” advertising angle?

If you can catch the repeats of this, please do. If not, at the very least sign up for the Chicken Out campaign and if you have a blog, add the badge to it like I have done.

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