It’s been more than 15 years since my show Hugh’s Chicken Run exposed the treatment of the UK’s most farmed animal. The month after it aired, sales of factory-farmed chickens plummeted and free-range birds flew off the shelves as the public began to contemplate the short and brutal lives of animals they had seen only when headless, plucked and smothered in clingfilm.
The programme was broadcast on Channel 4 to millions of viewers, and I hoped it would spark a nationwide revolt against the “two for a fiver” birds in supermarket fridges, the insultingly low price for which could only be achieved by systematic cruelty. I had hoped that beaming footage of these abused chickens into people’s living rooms might make them think twice about their dinner, and shop differently for ever.
But despite years of campaigning, chicken farming remains mostly crowded, confining and – above all – cruel. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
When the show came out in 2008, there were 850m chickens being reared in miserable factories across the UK. Now there are more than 1bn. If you put that shocking number of chickens in a line, it would go around the globe 12.5 times. In 2008, more than 95% of chickens were factory farmed; now that figure is close to 90%. That’s not nothing, but it is not the revolution I’d hoped for.
We did contribute to change. New welfare initiatives such as the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) were created and championed by animal welfare charities and their supporters around the globe. Today, farms that follow the BCC guidelines give chickens more space, and environmental enrichment to encourage natural behaviour patterns such as foraging, perching and pecking. And they prohibit the use of unnaturally fast-growing breeds, which are beset by painful health problems. Injuries and premature mortality for chickens in the BCC systems are reduced.
More than 350 companies have signed up across the UK and Europe. There has even been progress among previously stubborn and elusive supermarkets. Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, who refused to meet me on camera over chicken welfare, are now both signed up to the BCC. Sainsbury’s, who promised me on camera that all its fresh chicken would be higher welfare within five years, is not, and while it did announce plans to improve its standards last year, it is still relying on fast-growing chicken breeds.
It’s important to understand what I mean by “factory farmed”. These chickens have been selectively bred to grow so quickly that they reach a slaughter weight of more than 2.2kg at just 35-40 days old. (A more naturally reared chicken takes more than twice as long). The effort of carrying their immense bulk around means they spend most of their lives lying down in their own ammonia-ridden waste, causing sores and burns. The strain from constant and rapid growth leads to deformed bones, lameness, organ failure, muscle diseases and early death.
I’ve seen and smelled what it’s like when you cram thousands of these desperate birds into a shed. It’s something I never want to experience again. Many people, including people who regularly bought factory farmed chickens for dinner, broke down in tears when I showed them in person how these birds really lived – how a billion British birds still live every year.
But there’s hope yet. A motion signed by more than 400 members of the Co-op is calling for the supermarket to sign the BCC, and will be considered at its annual general meeting this May. In 1995, the supermarket technically broke the law to label eggs from battery hens as “intensively produced”, spotlighting animal welfare for the benefit of its customers. In 2008, it kicked cages for laying hens out of its supply chain. Now there’s a chance for this progressive supermarket to extend better welfare standards to the millions of chickens it sells for meat.
May also marks a landmark judicial review case about fast-growing chickens, launched by the animal charity The Humane League UK against the government. According to the charity, these superfast-growing breeds that are now the standard in our factory farms are already illegal, as the law states that animals can’t be farmed if their genes harm their health or welfare. The science plainly shows that fast-growing birds are made sick by their warped genetics. This trial has the potential to change the future of the UK’s most abused animal for good.
It is incredibly hard to change people’s minds, influence the policies of companies obsessed with bottom lines, or shift the interpretations of our ponderous judiciary. However, the treatment of chickens is one area where I will keep trying. These animals are living lives of squalor and horror on a scale that most people choose never to think about, because if they did they would barely believe it possible.
On Tuesday, Rishi Sunak met British farmers and promised we would never have chlorinated chicken or hormone-fed beef. But on the unseen but shameful treatment of a billion British birds in the UK’s still-secretive factory farms, there was the usual silence.
It may take another 15 years to make the BCC welfare improvements fully mainstream in the UK. But if supermarkets see the light and throw their weight behind welfare reforms now, it could take a fraction of that time. Until we get there, the treatment of our farmed animals will remain a blot on our farming culture, and our collective moral conscience.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a food and cookery writer, broadcaster and campaigner