KFC Red Tractor chicken

No matter how many scandals the chicken industry has been embroiled in, we like our chicken cheap. Prices are down 10% per kg in two years. And we’ve gobbled up nearly 12 million extra kilos as a result, most of it at the economy end of the market.

So should the chicken sector be worried about the more recent spate of Red Tractor scandals? Admittedly the latest exposés have involved Red Tractor assured pork and beef. And if images of chicken pieces being scooped up from the 2 Sisters factory floor last autumn didn’t cause a flight to higher-welfare chicken, there’s no need to flap. Or is there?

No matter how ‘isolated’ these incidents, the damage must be adding up. After all, the Red Tractor scheme sets enormous store on trust. On the same day The Times exposed ghastly abuse at Rosebury Farms, a Red Tractor-assured pig farm, the assurance scheme was running newspaper ads telling us to ‘Trust the Tractor’. Yet time after time that trust is being eroded.

The assurance scheme was essentially set up to enable British farmers (and retailers) to signal British provenance to consumers. But it took the FSA to investigate allegations that Red Tractor-assured Russell Hume was selling foreign beef as British. Other scandals have shown Red Tractor’s inability to assure welfare standards - even though the bar was set deliberately low. And is it any wonder? Not only are unannounced visits as low as 0.08%; as an Efra select committee noted you can opt out of them. Not very reassuring.

To be fair, Red Tractor has vowed to up the number of unannounced visits. The assurance scheme is also looking at blockchain technology and later this year will trial a new risk-based approach that mirrors the FSA’s.

But it’s clear Red Tractor will need to up its game to safeguard (and improve) its reputation. In a post-Brexit world, in a market flooded with more cheap chicken from Eastern Europe, Thailand, Brazil and (who knows) chlorine-washed chicken from the US, that may need to include upping standards further, so Red Tractor stands for tangibly higher practices than the mandatory minimum. But at the least it must be trusted.