Sunday September 24, 2006 (UK)
The misery of egg-laying birds has been well-documented, but what about the life of chickens bred for eating? Andrew Purvis investigates whether the RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme is really working or whether chicken farming is just one big cock-up
'It's normal biosecurity,' says Andrew Maunder, commercial director of Lloyd Maunder Ltd ('West Country family butchers since 1898'), handing me a sealed polythene bag with a zip-up protective suit inside. As I struggle into my navy-blue overalls, I am offered boot shields - sturdy PVC envelopes to slip over my shoes - and even a surgical mask to guard against dust and the stench of ammonia. Then we dip our feet in a bucket of brick-red disinfectant - the final defence against bird flu and campylobacter (a pathogen common in broilers reared for their meat) - before stepping into shed No 1 at Tollgate Farm in Devon.
Compared to others I have heard about, the rough timber building is clean and well-ventilated, the air churned by enormous fans spinning at 30ft intervals along its walls - but the fishy smell of ammonia, from the birds' excrement, is acrid and overwhelming. The entire floor is carpeted with chickens - 14,500 in all - a handful of them dead, not housed in cages like battery hens but sitting almost shoulder-to-shoulder on a dimly lit expanse of wood shavings compacted with their own faeces and urine. Each is allotted a space equivalent to an A4 sheet of paper, roughly the size of this magazine.
'They move around, so it's a moving sheet,' Maunder clarifies, adding that stocking densities are lower on Lloyd Maunder farms than is strictly required for 'standard' broilers reared to Assured Chicken Production (ACP) standards adopted by 90 per cent of UK farmers and denoted by the red tractor logo on packaging. The only chickens lower in the welfare pecking order come from Brazil, Thailand and less enlightened European countries, though even some farms there exceed ACP standards - as does Lloyd Maunder, in areas such as lighting and ventilation. 'It's just the way we do things here,' says Maunder. 'I'm comfortable with the way we grow standard chicken.'
That's why his company has allowed me on to its farm as part of a pre-planned RSPCA visit, to see what the acceptable face of standard chicken production looks like. The unacceptable face is described in a controversial new report by the animal-protection charity (to be published tomorrow, and shown exclusively to OFM), comparing ACP with the RSPCA's Freedom Food system.
The 30-page document makes harrowing reading, with tales of up to 50,000 chickens crammed in a dark, airless shed, pumped up by a high-protein diet and suffering from 'heat stress' and respiratory problems caused by 'aerial contaminants'. So tightly packed are the birds, they sit immobile in their own soiled litter, with blistered breasts and ulcerated wounds from the ammonia in their excreta. Grotesquely obese, they suffer from ascites (a build-up of fluid in the abdomen, caused by the heart being unable to pump it around their engorged bodies), hip disorders such as femoral head necrosis (where the top of the leg bone disintegrates due to bacterial infection) and 'sudden death syndrome' (acute heart failure) - all the result of selective breeding for rapid weight gain.
It's a shocking revelation, but with a ring of familiarity to it. In 2000, investigators from the Hillside Animal Sanctuary in Norfolk filmed undercover footage of dead, dying, rotten and sick hens at a free-range egg farm certified by Freedom Food - the company, owned by the RSPCA, that monitors standards at approved farms. The following year, the footage was used in a BBC Watchdog programme and similar accusations were made about a Freedom Food turkey farm, and a pig farm. The RSPCA complained to the BBC and defended the scheme. Nevertheless, animal-rights campaigners say Freedom Food is still large-scale industrial farming with appalling consequences for livestock.
Today, the RSPCA is on a mission - to prove to me that its 'higher-welfare' system (favourably presented in the report, of course) is superior to the industry's queasily rudimentary base standard. Freedom Food birds are not in the same league as free-range or organic (see the Good Broiler Guide), but they are a fraction of the cost. For an extra £1.80 - as opposed to an extra fiver for organic - all of us can at least buy a broiler with some kind of ethical guarantee.
As I walk down the standard ACP shed, only the birds immediately around my feet stand up and scatter. Twenty, 10 and even six feet ahead, the rest remain a sea of stationary grey objects: vocal, but lacking the will to get up - except to eat or drink from red plastic 'feeders' moving around the shed on a conveyor belt. When they do walk, they have a splayed gait and a pronounced waddle - the result of the leg and hip injuries I have read about, caused by their absurdly accelerated development. Forty years ago, a broiler took 84 days to reach market weight; now, it can do so in just 37.
'This one has hock marks,' says Andrew Maunder, grabbing a Cobb (the most common breed) and showing me the black, roughened patches on its legs - like a grazed knuckle rather than the deep lacerations mentioned in the RSPCA's report: a paler version of the 'hock burn' caused by sitting in hot, acidic faeces. The bird also has small blisters on its feet, far less serious than the 'foot-pad burn' again associated with high stocking densities, poor litter quality and inactivity. Mind you, this is an exemplary 'standard' farm.
A half-hour drive away, I step inside a shed at Winkleigh Farm - which also supplies Lloyd Maunder - and notice a dramatic difference. At first, it seems much like the first: the stench is identical, the air dustier, and my impression is that there are even more birds. Then I realise it's because they are bolt upright (what Maunder calls 'head-up chickens'), running around, jumping up on raised perches and tearing at straw bales, some even 'flying' a few feet before crashing to earth and pecking at my boots. They are behaving like proper story-book chickens, not the living dead.
In this shed, conforming to the RSPCA's Freedom Food standard, there are 1,500 fewer birds - a small difference, but critical in allowing them to spread their wings and turn around. Their litter is drier, dustier and more 'friable' (crumbly) than at the first farm - and deeper, allowing the birds to 'dust bathe' as in the wild. Here, 'variable' lighting is dimmed and increased gradually to simulate daylight. In most standard sheds, the light is kept constant (preventing rest and making the birds eat more) and eerily dim - 10 lux, as opposed to the optimum 20, discouraging activity, accelerating weight gain and causing eye problems.
These are Devonshire Bronzes - a more handsome breed, though this alone does not explain their whiter, thicker plumage. 'They feather up nicely because they grow steadily,' says Colin Davey, the farmer here and a poultry stockman for 21 years. 'Their bone structure is good, and everything grows in proportion.'
Already, these birds are 44 days old and will be killed at 50 - maturing nearly a fortnight longer than those at Tollgate Farm. Maunder points out their strong feet and narrower, more precise gait, then draws my attention to the feathers littering the ground. 'It's the sign of a good crop,' says Davey, 'they're getting a good nutritional balance.' In standard sheds, birds 'feather-peck' each other, or eat feathers off the ground, to compensate for a lack of amino acids in their diet.
I pick up a handful of mashed pellets, a gourmet mix of maize (these are corn-fed chickens), peas, whole kernels of wheat, black rapeseed and 'non-GM soya from non-deforested areas' - though this (like the plastic windows, admitting daylight 'like the dappled light at the edge of a forest', says Maunder) goes way beyond the RSPCA standard and is voluntary. 'You can smell molasses in there,' he adds. 'The Cobbs are on a high-protein diet, the Bronzes on a keep-fit diet.'
Most surprisingly, Freedom Food birds have toys - footballs and mirrors made from CDs dangling on strings, to keep them active rather than eating their short lives away. 'If we gave the standard Cobbs toys, it wouldn't be beneficial,' Davey reckons. 'The feeding track moving around the shed is the highlight of their day.'
So clear are the benefits, it's hard to see why Lloyd Maunder would farm any other way - but it does. To cater for every budget, it sells everything from organic birds reared outdoors (the most expensive at about £9 for a medium-sized 1.8kg bird), through free-range (£7.20) and Freedom Food (£5.40) to standard (£3.60) - and the demand is at the bottom end. Despite Britain's growing love affair with ethically sourced food, the 'higher-welfare' broiler market accounted for only three per cent of production last year - 1.7 per cent Freedom Food, 1.09 per cent free range, and a negligible 0.14 per cent organic - suggesting that 97 per cent of purchases are made on price, rather than conscience. By contrast, free-range eggs account for 40 per cent of the market. A concerted effort by campaigners and animal charities lodged the image of cruelly caged egg-laying birds in our minds, yet broilers housed in vast sheds (with marginally less space per bird) have failed to register in the same way.
With this in mind, the RSPCA has published its broiler report. On Freedom Food farms, the maximum stocking density is slightly lower (equivalent to 1.25 sheets of A4 per bird, as opposed to a single sheet), the birds grow half as fast, lighting is varied and brighter, and the environment is enriched with bales, perches and pecking objects. For a year, producers monitored almost 13m birds - 10.5m to ACP standards, 2.4m to the RSPCA's - for mortality, hock burn, footpad burn, death in transit, disease and defects that made them unfit for human consumption. Data was independently analysed by Agra CEAS Consulting.
The statistics make grim reading. In standard birds, the mortality rate was 5.1 per cent (that's 45 million of the 900 million broiler chicks hatched in Britain each year) compared to just 1.8 per cent for Freedom Food. The level of hock burn was 19 per cent for standard birds, and only 3.5 per cent for those reared the RSPCA way. Foot-pad burn was half as common, deaths in transit were 70 per cent less likely, and rejects at the slaughterhouse were 1.6 per cent compared to 1.9 - in other words, 30,000 fewer rejects at an abattoir that slaughters 10 million chickens a year.
For humans as well as chickens, the benefits are clear. 'From a food-safety point of view, it's important,' says Marc Cooper, senior scientific officer at the RSPCA. He cites research by Professor Tom Humphrey at Bristol University, examining links between stocking densities and campylobacter - a serious food-poisoning bug affecting 30,000 people a year in Britain, at one time detected in 50 per cent of chickens. Professor Humphrey found campylobacter infection to be 50 per cent lower in RSPCA birds.
'That is a massive decrease,' says Cooper, explaining how poor animal husbandry increases levels of the stress-hormone noradrenaline. 'That acts as a fertiliser, which feeds the pathogen and accelerates the growth of campylobacter in the gut.' The research backs up similar findings by Dr Sue Haslam, also at Bristol, who worked out a UWI (unitary welfare index) score for broiler flocks, based on floor space, enrichment of the birds' environment (ie, toys), mortality rates and the incidence of lameness and foot pad disease. She, too, found a clear correlation between high welfare scores and lower incidence of campylobacter.
It's scientific proof of what stockmen have known for decades. 'This is how most farmers have always wanted to grow birds,' says Colin Davey, of his Winkleigh Farm flock. 'We've always known it, but supply and demand' - the pressure to grow birds quickly and cheaply - 'has dictated a more industrialised system. Hopefully, it will go back to how it used to be.'
Even at Tollgate Farm, which grows standard birds out of necessity, assistant farm manager Phil Martin knows where he stands. 'Freedom Food is a totally different bird,' he says, 'running around and active. As an animal lover, I think the bird comes first. You may as well give them the best you can while they're alive.'
If farmers feel that way, who is calling the shots? Are the supermarkets driving down prices in order to compete, forcing producers to cut costs, or is it us - the consumer, obsessed with getting a bargain? 'We're in it together,' says Andrew Maunder - 'the consumer, buying out of ignorance; the supermarkets, buying out of ignorance; and me, the producer, thinking I'm clever and saying I'll do it cheaper. The danger is that the animal pays. That whole chain of events is wrong, and I would not want to be a part of that.'
Brave words, but why does Lloyd Maunder persist in growing standard birds? 'It's driven by demand,' says Maunder, 'and there isn't the demand for Freedom Food birds. If I grow them and can't sell them, I'll go out of business. We can't convert everything, because of the expense; and we don't want to cross the finish line saying, "We've done it", then go bust the next week.'
Farmers are queuing up, he adds, to supply Lloyd Maunder in the hope of growing Freedom Food birds: 'I've got the farmers, I know how to do it, I just need people to buy it. If the RSPCA's campaigns mean people go and buy one more Freedom Food chicken than they do standard, that will filter back to me and I'll convert more farms. It's that short a chain, that quick a chain.'
The argument for converting to Freedom Food is compelling. Like Fairtrade, a small additional outlay (an extra £1.50 per medium-sized chicken, according to the RSPCA) can have a big effect on welfare - though some may still choose to go the whole hog and fork out £5 more for organic or free-range. 'What I'm asking people to do is take a quid or two from a lottery ticket, a pint of beer, a Costa coffee, and put it on a chicken,' says Maunder. 'If you do, it will have a big impact on farming - because the more of a particular type we sell, the more we will grow. In business, we're reactive. We want to go where the consumer wants to take us.'
Like the RSPCA, Maunder believes Freedom Food should become the industry's base standard, displacing ACP. 'In my opinion, it is better than Red Tractor,' he says, 'but they all have their place.' In the absence of any EU legislation governing broiler welfare, except for organic and free-range birds (others can be kept in whatever conditions the farmer chooses), ACP has at least provided a standard. Its chickens are British (with better traceability and fewer food miles), have not been given antibiotic growth promoters or GM grain, and contain no added water - 'but it is still a base standard,' says Maunder.
At the other end of the market, there is a booming appetite for organic and free-range birds - with sales up 65 per cent, from 15m in 2004 to 25m in 2005 - but most people, apart from gastronomes and chefs, consider them an overpriced luxury that will never break out of its three per cent market niche. 'There's a future for indoor birds,' Andrew Maunder maintains - and if avian flu rears its ugly head, it could be the only one; the Government may outlaw outdoor flocks.
In Maunder's view, consumers should be given a wide choice, buying chicken as they would a bottle of wine - a New World plonk one day, a fine Bordeaux the next, a standard Cobb or a free-range Devonshire Red. 'In a French supermarket,' he says, 'there will be five types. People know which one they want, they grab it and they're gone. It could be a Label Rouge, or from the Vendée; it could be a naked-necked black, or grown among trees in the Landes. Just across the water, the speciality option as opposed to the standard is more than a three per cent niche. I think there's a strong possibility Britain will go the same way.'
How much should you pay for a chicken?
Standard (ACP - assured chicken production - Red Tractor logo)
Price per medium-sized (1.8kg) bird: About £3.60.
Market share: 90 per cent of UK producers are ACP, so nearly all the chicken we eat - 10.5kg per person per year - is 'standard'.
Welfare: up to 50,000 birds in windowless sheds. Typical stocking density 34kg (17 birds) per sq m (up to 38kg is allowed). Each bird gets equivalent space as an A4 sheet of paper. Dim (10 lux) lighting to discourage activity, with one hour of total darkness for 40 per cent of a bird's life, four hours for the remainder. No perches or toys, broilers do little but eat (rapid weight gain leads to leg and hip injuries, obesity and heart disease), or sit in soiled litter (hence high incidence of hock, breast and foot-pad burn).
Diet: High-protein cereal feed. This, plus selective breeding for weight gain, accelerates growth rates to 90g per day. Age at slaughter: 40 days, though 37 is possible.
Pros: Cheap, farmed to some kind of standard. British, so better traceability and fewer food miles; no antibiotic growth promoters; no added water. Mortality rates lower for indoor birds.
Cons: High rate of mortality, injury, disease and defects. Eating quality: Flavourless, pale, smooth-textured flesh.
Freedom Food barn-reared
Price per bird: £5.40. Market share: 1.7 per cent of broilers slaughtered last year.
Welfare: Reared in sheds but at lower stocking densities - a maximum of 30kg per sq m, i.e. 1.25 sheets of A4 paper per bird. Lighting varied to simulate natural cycle. Six hours of total darkness at night, allows birds to rest properly. Minimum light by day 20 lux, bright enough for birds to be active, causes fewer eye abnormalities. Perches, straw bales, and toys encourage pecking and activity. Deeper litter allows birds to dust-bathe.
Diet: Cereal with a high ratio of maize (corn-fed) means growth rates are only 45g per day. Age at slaughter: 50 days. Pros: An affordable compromise of ACP and 'gold standard' organic. Birds live longer, grow more slowly, have lower mortality rates and are less likely to suffer leg and hip problems, hock burn and foot pad burn. Fewer birds rejected at the slaughterhouse due to defects.
Cons: Still industrialised farming on a massive scale. Eating quality: Pale, but chewier and firmer with more flavour. 50 per cent less likely to be infected with campylobacter.
Price per bird: £7.20.
Market share: 1.09 per cent.
Welfare: Housed in sheds, with free access to the outdoors during daylight. Outdoor spaces must be 'mainly covered with vegetation' and sheltered by hedges and trees. In sheds, densities must not exceed 27.5kg per sq m ; outdoors no more than 1,000 chickens per hectare.
Diet: Cereal feed, plus grasses, seeds, clover, windfalls from trees. Age at slaughter: 56 days.
Pros: An outdoor life; good muscle development; fewer leg and hip injuries; a more varied diet. Cons: Higher mortality from predators; affected by weather; birds do not range freely.
Eating quality: More developed, firmer flesh and a strong flavour. Organic (Soil Association)
Organic Birds Reared Outdoors
Price per bird: about £9.
Market share: 0.14 per cent of the 860 million chickens killed in Britain last year, but growing.
Welfare: Small flocks (up to 1,000 birds) roam outdoors, on land planted with vegetation. No more than 10 broilers per sq m in small huts moved around to let land rest.
Diet: Organic cereal feed; grass, seeds, clover from outdoors.
Age at slaughter: 81 days.
Pros: Longer, healthier outdoor life ; more natural diet; ethical farm system; litter used to fertilise land.
Cons: Higher mortality rates from foxes. Birds less inclined to range in winter. More likely to be infected with campylobacter - but not necessarily the strain that causes human food poisoning. Eating quality: Firm, fibrous, well-textured flesh; lots of dark meat.
· Freedom Food barn-reared chicken (corn-fed) is available at Sainsbury's, Asda, Somerfield, Morrisons and Budgens. A free-range Freedom Food option is stocked by the Co-op, Fresh & Wild and Selfridges
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