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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

the chicken post

It's just occurred to me that the daily act of feeding myself has turned into an ethical minefield; the list of everyday commodities that come tainted by child-slavery, carcinogens or stomach-turning welfare standards is now as long as my arm, and short of going all Good Life on you (admittedly tricky to do, in a two bedroom flat with no garden...) I'm unlikely to get through the day unscathed. But, like good ol' Gwyneth Paltrow, who this week declared life was about finding a balance- somewhere 'between cigarettes and tofu'- I've decided to pick my battles. Which means that, theoretically, I'm OK to sip on a Diet Coke (courtesy of evil conglomerate Coca Cola, purveyor of aspartame-laden soft drinks, and an empire with a human rights record that would make the late Kim Jong Il blush), while I rant about the perils of chicken consumption without feeling like too much of a hypocrite.

Garden: obligatory.

I have a love/hate relationship with chicken. In a restaurant, it's rarely anything other than a dry, overcooked bit of breast meat that's been thrown haphazardly into an unimaginative, bland-looking dish. I judge those who order chicken out quite harshly. I can't help it- I'm a bad person, who's screaming on the inside- 'BE. MORE. INTERESTING.' Which, I appreciate, is grossly unfair. Chicken at home however, is another matter. Given a bit of love, time and attention, it's juicy, flavoursome, and has the potential to be infinitely more interesting. Regardless- chicken has become part of our nation's staple diet- it's cheap, familiar, and versatile. But with its popularity comes a vague, gnawing unease- an awareness that the three quid chicken we find in our supermarket chiller cabinet probably has a more sinister past than we'd care to consider. How many of us have actually stopped to question how an animal can be reared, slaughtered and sold for £3 at a profit? It's an uncomfortable notion, because deep down, we know the deal... the only way this is economically viable is by employing the lowest welfare standards imaginable, and fiddling with the meat a bit along the way. Chickens, you see, are at an unfortunate evolutionary disadvantage: there are limits to how poorly you can treat a cow- how many you can squeeze into a single square foot (none, presumably), and how low the standards you adhere to can be before their meat becomes inedible. Chickens, on the other hand, are conveniently 'stackable', and the regard for their welfare seems to fall of the radar a little. Perhaps there's something fundamentally less 'human' about them that de-sensitizes us to their maltreatment?

However, I do like to think that the great British public are becoming more aware of their food provenance. Since the dawning realisation that a 99p box of burgers might contain one or two (hundred) things that aren't that good for you, there seems to have been a shift in attitudes to food- and it's well overdue. So I'm going to take full advantage, and hope that people will be a bit more receptive than they ordinarily would to the following:

Things You Probably Already Know About Chicken, But Are Choosing To Ignore

...something that may well come across as a deeply pious, occasionally smug rant about bad poultry.

First up, I feel I ought to clarify something. I am not rich. I do not have endless reserves of cash to fritter away on luxury ingredients for seven meals a week. I'm a 26 year old, trying to eke out a career in an unforgiving, over-worked and under-paid industry, who still has to rely on a part-time waitressing job to pay the bills (and for the food shop). So for anyone reading this that thinks having an ethical backbone, or buying quality ingredients to make better-tasting food is only the reserve of the financially secure, you're wrong. It's about making choices- I buy my meat from a butchers. It is, after all, what they're there for. Yes, it's probably more expensive, but I can look at it properly, and ask questions about where it's come from. And if I can avoid putting another penny in Tesco's pocket by doing so, then all the better. In short, if you're on a tight budget consider spending just a bit more on your cut of meat, and then use your leftovers more imaginativley (old blog post plug #1) or go vegetarian for a meal or two (old blog post plug #2).

Now that's out the way, let's get down to the first, and biggest, hurdle to buying decent chicken- the jargon. It's ridiculous. 'Free range'... 'organic'... 'welfare assured'... Which, if any, will leave you with a clear conscience? With a bit of (thoroughly depressing) research, I've cobbled together this- a glossary, of sorts, to help you decode your poultry.

1. Traditional Free-Range/ Total Freedom Chicken:

A happy chicken.
This is as reassuring as it sounds. The chicken breeds will have been chosen for their slow growth, and will only have been put away at night, because having your entire flock decimated by the neighbourhood fox clearly defeats the purpose. These chickens will have lived for at least 80 days before being slaughtered (more than twice as long as it takes intensively farmed chickens to reach market weight), have been in limited flock sizes, and will have been fed proper food. They will also have been dry plucked and hung to improve flavour (more on that in a minute).

2. Free Range:

A confusing term, and not necessarily as happy as it sounds. It's not as strong a guarantee of welfare as Traditional Free Range is, but birds must have been allowed to roam outside for at least half their life. They must have been fed grain, and will have reached at least 58 days in age, in limited flock sizes. So, not bad. There's worse to come.

3. Freedom Foods:

Established by the RSPCA, this label has three standards: free range, organic, and indoor. All are protected by rules that ensure a good diet, comfortable housing, freedom from pain, discomfort and mental suffering, and the ability to display natural behaviour. Like flapping.

4. Organic:

From 'organic' certified farms. This label is no guarantee of decent welfare standards, but sounds posh and considered enough to make you think it is.

Sad Chickens. No amount of Instagram-ing could make them
look happy.
5. Red Tractor:

90% of our chickens are Red Tractor certified. These birds have been subject to independent investigations, and they offer a degree of traceability. But that's as much reassurance as this friendly little logo can provide. Most of these, and all other intensively farmed birds, have never seen daylight- and certainly not outside the confines of their overcrowded 'barns.' I use the inverted commas because the very word 'barn' has the strange habit of conjuring up a delightfully quaint image- one that sadly has no place in this discussion. These birds are kept in flocks approaching 5000 in number (allowing them less than an A4 page of paper in room to manoeuvre) and their wings and beaks are clipped to prevent them from killing one another, as they are naturally inclined to do in such stressful, over-crowded conditions. They are fed on a diet of poor quality grain and antibiotics, and spent most of their time lying in their own excrement- unable to move because they are grossly overweight, and have deformed or broken legs. Besides which, there's not really anywhere for them to go. You know the brown splodges you see on chicken legs if you buy a bird whole? Yeah, they're ammonia burns.

6. Corn Fed:

Don't even get me started. The most that can be said for Corn Fed chickens is that they tend to be free range... but what good is that when you've been forced to eat so much grain that your legs have broken underneath you? 

So, now you're suitably informed (not to mention disgusted, and possibly a little depressed...), what should you be looking for in a good bird?

Skin: Chicken skin should be dry, and a creamy yellow colour. This means the bird has been dry-plucked and hung. Slimy, wet skin indicates the bird has been wet-plucked- as have 95% of all British poultry. Feathers have been ripped from the body with jets of water, which then leave moisture-filled holes that are a haven for bacteria. This, in turn, means the bird cannot be hung, for fear of contamination. Dry-plucked, well-hung (snigger) birds mean crispy skin, and tasty, tender flesh.

Meat: The flesh should be a golden yellow colour (not the jaundiced, sickly yellow of a corn-fed bird, or the pink and wet of an intensively farmed chicken). It should be free from purple splodges, as these only occur when an animal has been traumatised and the blood capillaries burst. If you're OK with the idea of eating a terrified chicken so long as it tastes alright, then you should know that this results in a flesh that's as tough and chewy as old boots. There should also be a decent layer of fat under the skin.

Feet: These need to look well-worked (a good indication that they've actually ventured outside), and free from those delightful brown splodges we talked about.

Eggs: Because they come from chickens. Pale yellow yolks mean a sad chicken, with a miserable diet. Buy local, if you can.

Bones: These should be dense, not weak and splintery.

Size: Talking about breasts, specifically. If they're the size of dearly departed Lolo Ferrari's, we can be fairly certain something untoward has occurred- either gross over-feeding, added water or, most likely, both.

That's it- I'm done. This isn't supposed to be a one-woman crusade, and I'm under no illusions that I'm about to single-handedly alter the mindset of the chicken-eating masses. You'll notice I haven't included dozens of grisly, harrowing photographs; I'm not trying to scaremonger, just enlighten. And if you can't have a whinge on something as self-indulgent as your own food blog, when can you, eh? Besides, if my self-satisfied rantings get just one person to think twice the next time they pick up a 79p box of eggs, or a packet of slimy 'Economy' chicken breasts, then I'm enough of a martyr to say it's been worthwhile ;)

In a couple of days, I'll have a good roast chicken recipe for you, but in the meantime, here's your reward for staying with me on this one... Enjoy.

mrs hunt.x


  1. A brilliant post :) I started watching River Cottage in my last year at uni & it made me really think about where I get my chicken from - as a result I started trying to buy proper free range when I could afford it & Quorn if not! People definitely need to be made aware that things like the red tractor symbol & corn fed don't necessarily mean they're buying happy chickens!

    L x

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! It's all about destroying popular misconceptions- not an easy job to do, but like I said, if I can do a little bit to spread the word, then I'm happy :) Aimee.x

  3. Aimee, it's so nice to hear and read my thoughts/feelings (exactly) from some who is not vegetarian- as a veggie, people always think you are taking the inevitable moral high ground when you are merely trying to share the knowledge that you have been bothered to find out/act upon- thank you for sharing! :D

  4. I applaud you. A very informative and honest account of where our chickens come from. We're all responsible for for eating well, not exposing animals to such levels of cruelty, and not buying poor quality meat simply out of convenience or because of cheaper prices. I share your sentiments. I just wish more people cared.

    Best Wishes,