In rural Herefordshire, I was sent out to buy the meat for a family celebration. The locals pointed me to Weobley, known as a ‘black and white’ village, for its architecture rather than its football team. King Charles spent the night there after the Battle of Naseby and the parade of shops and restaurants suggested that this small village cum market town was still well to do.
At Mark Hurds Butchers, where the staff wore straw boaters, I bought a rib of beef and two free range chickens. The chickens were supplied by Springfield Farm, Herefordshire which described itself as an old fashioned family business set up in 1956.They were eye wateringly expensive but the butcher said, with a twinkle in his eye, that “if only people knew the conditions in which mass produced poultry were raised, Sir, they would never eat cheap chicken again.”
Now we do know a little more about how chickens are raised, following a Guardian / ITV undercover operation at 2 Sisters Food Group where 6 million chicken are processed a week. Staff at Site D in West Bromwich were shown changing the kill by dates on the poultry to prolong their lives on supermarket shelves and picking up chicken off the floor and returning them to the production line. Aldi, Lidl, Sainsbury and Tesco stopped supplies from Site D but subsequent inspections from Food Standards Agency and Tesco’s own experts found nothing wrong. Site D has been temporarily closed for staff retraining.
Back in 2009, Jack Dromney, now the local M P, took up the issue of changing dates with 2 Sisters, who claimed that poor working practices were being cleaned up. So, who do you believe?
I had never heard of 2 Sisters Food Group but it turns out to be the largest food company in the country producing one third of all poultry products eaten in Britain. It even owns Bernard Matthews – the most famous chicken breeder of all time. The company was set up by a Brummie called Ranjit Singh Boparan, who started life as a butchers assistant and is now a shy multi millionaire known in the West Midlands as ‘Chicken King’.
Mr Boparan will be hauled before a select committee which ought to look into the regulation of the food industry. The number of environmental health officers has fallen by 25% since 2010. They have been told to concentrate on the smaller producers as the large firms are above suspicion and are overseen by supermarket inspectors. As with building inspection, food inspection is contracted out to save money.
The story sheds light on the cut throat supply of food products which have small profit margins and just in time delivery dates enforced by the supermarkets in order to outdo the competition. Tesco, by the way, brands its chickens from 2 Sisters as an exclusive Willow Farm range reared to Red Tractor quality standard. As the chickens have never set foot in a farm, that must defy the Trade Descriptions Act.
But, at the end of the day, we have only ourselves to blame. We want our food as cheaply as possible and we are not prepared to pay a penny more.
I can remember as a boy that roast beef was served without fail for Sunday lunch and chicken only appeared on the table for Easter and Christmas. It was a cherished rarity. We now eat over 2 million chickens a day in the United Kingdom.
Since the 1950s, cheap energy, synthetic fertiliser and antibiotics have allowed vast numbers of chickens to be force fed in sheds in cramped conditions. The chickens live in their own dirt and are so obese that they can hardly stand up. A chicken has a space the size of an A4 sheet of paper for its 6 week life. It will have more space in the oven when dead, according to Felicity Lawrence, who wrote ‘The Foods That Make Billions’.
“Keeping chickens in cruel conditions produces a poorer product,” says Compassion in World Farming. “Why do we think it acceptable to expect people on lower incomes to have to feed their children poorer factory-farmed food?”
The environmental campaigner George Monbiot goes even further. He believes that farming animals will come to be seen as one the great cruelties of the modern age and that the production of meat and poultry is wasteful of land and resources. Converting to soya reduces the land area required per kilo of protein by 70% for poultry and 97% for beef. We could cut greenhouse emissions and restore the natural habitat if we used land for growing crops instead . It is the only sustainable way to feed the world.
The Chinese have just signed a deal for artificial meat and it may not be long before we all live off synthetic food. Old habits die hard though, especially something as primitive as gnawing on a bone. But why not keep meat and poultry for high days and holidays?
For the record, last weekend was a special occasion and the chicken from Mr Hurd was every bit as good as I remember as a child. The left over beef supplied sandwiches for long walks high in the hills. I looked down on fields full of sheep and cattle wondering if the days of animal farming were numbered and if I should be buying Quorn and pulses instead.
Published in Newcastle Journal 17th October 2017