Celebrity chefs' efforts to overhaul the way we think about chicken is getting through - 23,000 people are already behind our campaign
When it comes to the chickens we eat in Britain, I'm beginning to think we may be on the verge of a revolution.
Recent programmes presented by celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have helped to turn the media spotlight on to these animals, which, despite comprising 95% of the estimated 900 million livestock reared each year in the UK, are so often overlooked. The RSPCA has long asked consumers to switch to higher-welfare options such as our Freedom Food, free-range or organic. But despite promising increases in the proportion of chickens being reared to higher standards, this still represents only 5% of the 855 million birds produced.
In response to the TV shows, we relaunched our campaign with newspaper ads and an online petition - www.supportchickennow.co.uk - challenging retailers to become the first to stop selling 'standard' chicken by 2010. More than 23,000 signatures were gathered in the first two weeks - the greatest response to a campaign about farm animals by the charity.
Our main concern is that about 95% of meat chickens (or broilers) reared in the UK are produced under Assured Chicken Production (ACP) standards, which enables them to bear the Red Tractor label. The standards permit overcrowded, barren conditions. This, coupled with genetic selection for fast growth , has been shown by research to result in significantly increased risk of serious health problems. These include lameness, sudden death, and hock and foot pad burns caused by contact with high levels of ammonia from the excrement.
It is all too easy to stand back and criticise. It is harder, but much more constructive, to offer a viable solution. That's why the RSPCA has worked with the industry, welfare scientists and specialist vets to produce a detailed set of science-based, welfare-focused standards for each of the major farmed species, including meat chickens.
The standards must be applied by members of the society's higher-welfare farm assurance scheme Freedom Food, which was also set up to deliver the solution. The RSPCA's chicken standards cover indoor and free-range systems and address key welfare issues such as space, light environmental enrichment and breed - only slower growing breeds are permitted.
A large-scale study involving millions of commercially produced chickens compared the welfare of chickens reared to ACP standards with those kept under RSPCA standards. Results indicated significant benefits for those reared under the RSPCA's standards. The study (reported in 'Everyone's a Winner' 2006) indicated higher welfare standards can be an achievable, commercially viable goal for producers.
Price is considered one of the biggest obstacles to improving welfare. But an indoor-reared Freedom Food chicken, which falls between a standard and a free-range bird, provides a higher-welfare alternative that most consumers can afford. If consumers support higher welfare production, they can provide the market demand needed to encourage retailers to stock more higher-welfare products .
The RSPCA aims to help the public make informed choices about the farming practices they support. Thanks to the celebrity chefs and the enormous publicity chicken welfare is receiving, the message may finally be reaching the most influential part of the food chain - the consumer. n
Dr Julia Wrathall, head of the farm animals department, RSPCA Science Group