Chicken accounts for 49% of the meat consumed in the UK. It’s cheap. It’s big business. But what are we compromising?

My first experience of purchasing chicken was at University when I paid just £3 for two baby chickens for a Thai green curry I was making (… and yes, I had no idea of proportions!). Alarm bells started ringing. How could preparing a vegetarian dish, cost the same as a meal further down the food chain? This is when I started questioning the poultry industry, the welfare of the animals but also why I was so distanced from the food on my plate.

Incubator to the plate

Our poultry demands have rocketed over the past 50 years, from being on average one chicken per person per year, to 23 kg per person per year! [1] This has resulted in the mass production of chickens in an industrialised fashion producing large breasted broiler chickens, who cripple under their own weight, bare little resemblance to their ancestors and are unable to sustain life in the natural environment.[1]

Transformation of the broiler chicken over the years
Rising poultry demands over the years

Once hatched, the chickens are transferred to the conveyor belt and any expressing unfavourable attributes are destined for the crusher! With rising food security concerns and alternative suggestions like insect eating, this raises an ethical debate. Chicks lucky enough (though, unlucky would be a better description) to pass the initiation test arrive at the farms and spend the entirety of their remaining 38 days enclosed in the same space, growing at an unnatural rate of 50g/day, without access to sunlight, fresh air or cleaning of litter. Unable to bear the burden of their weight these chickens develop lung and heart failure, bone problems and deformities causing immobility resulting in death from thirst and hunger. These highly productive birds display poor social behaviour and cannibalism is rife. Studies suggest the high stocking density causes these chickens emotional stress. This painful torment comes to an end at day 38, when these birds are thrown into a truck and arrive at the abattoirs. Chickens are then electrocuted, slaughtered mechanically and then manually when the machine misses the right spot – and wallah chicken is served![1][2]

Distancing from the food we eat 

During the late 20th century efforts were made to reconnect consumers with the products they were purchasing. We saw the emergence of initiatives such as ‘fair trade’ and push for more free range eggs (today 45% of the eggs are free range). However, this movement was skewed towards certain practices whilst others were ignored, especially with regards to the meat industry- my own experience and the horse meat scare in 2013 was a testament to this.[1]

In order to discuss distancing, we must understand what it means to eat food and the drivers to consumption. My first argument surrounding ‘disconnected-ness’ is that the way we qualify food has substantially changed.

Sacrificing an animal for food is a hefty decision and yet in the UK, we eat our way through 2.2 million chickens per day, without acknowledging the fact.[3] We might even praise our self for opting for the high protein, low carb ‘healthy option’ and little thought goes beyond this.

Over the years we have seen a global shift in the way we quantify the whole food process and this transition may be the cause of our distancing. Traditionally, the concept of food in many cultures was seen as a source of positive energy- a conduit to productivity. Individuals had an active engagement with the whole process at a physical and mental level. In the Buddhist tradition, it was considered sinful eat more than one animal at a time (…if considering eating meat at all) as you were taking more lives, adding an element of accountability to consumption.[4] In the Islamic faith, the intention of the cook was to produce food as a source of healing and ‘goodness’. Consumption of an animal was seen as elevating its status, from being a creature with limited agency to providing energy for good deeds. Muslims often went as far as naming their sacrifice in order to show gratitude to the animal, meaning sacrifice wasn’t a causal process but something that carried responsibility and prevented the objectification of the animal.[5]

In today’s world, the concept of food has been transformed. Eating for most of us is rushed process, in which the best option is the most convenient option that doesn’t interfere with our fast lifestyle. For others, the content of food is a reflection of a status symbol, a diet we eat to strive for a particular body image or something that helps to reduce the pain of checking emails. When these ideas pay a central role in our thinking, we are distanced from the content and quality of food.[6]

The shift from rural settlements to urban environments has further increased this discrepancy. Naturally, people are less inclined to have the same relationship with their chicken if it was picked up from the shelf at Tesco than if it was farmed in their back yard. Furthermore, the billions invested in the marketing of food emphasising taste and enjoyment distracts us from the primary focus of food being pure.[6]

Final thoughts…

Clearly, the chickens we eat today aren’t the chickens our grandparents ate! Had I known how unsustainable this practice was I would have reduced my chicken intake a while ago. This practice is not only unethical but points the finger at whether such a high demand for chicken is necessary? When were we last protein deficient in the UK?  Why not go for the alternative protein options or eat less but eat ethically? Going forward I feel we need more awareness of what’s on our plate and take more responsibility for our actions. Going cold turkey may be too ambitious but starting with initiatives like no chicken Tuesday is a good start! [7]