Home > Ethical Consumption, Food, Provenance > Planet Chicken: The shameful story of the bird on your plate

Planet Chicken: The shameful story of the bird on your plate

First published in Bolander Lifestyle & Property, November 11, 2009

By Hattie Ellis

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

ISBN: 9 780340 921883

Reviewer: Norman McFarlane

Some eighteen months ago I bought two packs of chicken breasts from a major retailer, and upon opening them the following day, discovered that they were, to put it delicately, off. Since it was a Sunday I froze them, planning to return them to the store the next day.

Journalistic commitments being what they are, I only managed to get back to the store on the Thursday evening – closing time is 9pm – and lodged a complaint with the information desk. I was given a refund, and an assurance that the matter would be looked into, and that I would receive feedback.

Needless to say, nothing happened until I made a follow-up call. To cut a long story short, it resulted in a meeting with a senior representative of the chicken supplier, who tried to buy me off with a hamper of free chicken products. You see, the two packs of rotten chicken had mysteriously “disappeared” and could therefore not be returned to the supplier for testing. Nobody admitted liability, and without the corpus delicti, so to speak, I had no case. But what really triggered alarm bells was the chicken company rep’s response to my request for a visit to one of its broiler farms. Talk about the shutters coming down and the walls going up!

I tried to push the point, but was unsuccessful in persuading her that the public had a right to know that the chicken they eat is safe. Point blank refusal.

To my shame, I left the matter right there, but I’ve always had this niggling doubt about the manner in which chickens are mass-produced, but it wasn’t until I read Hattie Ellis’ sobering book “Chicken Planet” that I came to realise the shameful truth that lies buried beneath the cheap, mass produced chicken we eat without a second thought.

Fate led me past four broiler farms near Worcester two weeks ago, where one of the largest mass producers of chicken rears thousands of what have become known as 42 day birds – that’s how old the birds are when they are slaughtered and packaged – every month, the day before I started to read the book. The smell that permeates the air will haunt me for ever.

Hattie Ellis, like me, writes about food. She too had a sense of unease about the manner in which cheap chicken is produced. She had the courage and fortitude to actually investigate the truth behind cheap chicken, and to write this important book.

The numbers associated with factory farming of chicken are staggering: over one million tonnes per annum in the UK, and incredibly, one million chickens every hour, 24 hours a day, are slaughtered and packaged in the United States.

And of course, the numbers may be much smaller in South Africa, but the details of mass production differ little.

The deliberate use of growth hormones, the manipulation of feeding cycles, the use of light to encourage laying in egg farms, the horrifying density of up to 19 birds per square metre, the inclusion of animal protein in broiler feed to encourage rapid growth with the consequent weakened bones, hock burn, broken legs which cause many birds to literally lie in their own excrement for days on end resulting in breast blistering, is but one thread of the horror of battery chicken farming.

Little wonder that chicken supplier representative refused to arrange a visit for me to a broiler farm.

Hattie Ellis treks the length and breadth of the globe, in an effort to determine where chicken production is headed, and whether there is any hope that we will be able to eat humanely farmed birds in the future.

The sheer scale of chicken production to meet the growing demand for cheap animal protein worldwide bedevils the perspective that free-range and organic production can replace the cruel system of broiler and egg production used worldwide, but Ellis’ research shows that there is a shift, albeit small at this time, as the result of changing legislation in Europe, and to lesser extent in the US.

She makes the cogent point that whilst it is unlikely that all chicken production will be range or organic in the future, at the very least it could be far more humane and less potentially threatening to human health than it currently is.

This of course presupposes that consumers will vote with their money for an improvement in mass farming methods, because the producers themselves will do little if anything to change and government is unlikely to enact legislation to force them to change. Ellis makes the point that whereas governments have introduced legislation watered down because of powerful agri-business lobbying, once consumers voted with their money and stopped supporting the likes of McDonalds, Wendy’s, Taco-Bell and KFC in the US and the UK, these previously defiant fast food giants – enormous users of mass farmed chicken, eggs and beef – very quickly put pressure on producers to change their ways. Such is the power of the consumer who cares.

Inevitably, chicken will become more expensive as a result of improvements in the practices of mass farming agri-business, but as Ellis comments in the book: “Rather than serving three sausages and two spoons of beans, serve two sausages and three spoons of beans.” We’ll simply have to pay more for humane chicken (and egg, beef and pork for that matter) or eat less of it. The economic benefits aside, it’s also a helluva lot healthier.

Whilst the book is sobering, it is at the same time fascinating and uplifting because it clearly presents evidence that already, in the major consumer countries, the mass farming of chicken and other animal protein is beginning to go through a much needed metamorphosis, and that we, as consumers have the power to force that much needed change.

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  1. February 15, 2011 at 9:50 am

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