Britain’s increasing taste for white meat is a disaster for animals and for us | Viva!

Britain’s increasing taste for white meat is a disaster for animals and for us

As much as 92% of all chicken is contaminated with faecal matter, while intensive livestock production crams 30,000 birds living in their own excrement into a single shed ...

As shocking as it is, The Guardian investigation into the British poultry industry is the thin end of a very large wedge indeed. Whilst overall meat consumption continues its long term decline , a swing to white meat means that ever greater numbers of chickens are being farmed and slaughtered in Britain each year.

The figures are staggering. Of all the land animals killed for meat, chickens dominate with an astounding  945 million slaughtered last year in this country (around 94% of all farmed animals killed nationally).  

Britain’s desire for cheap white meat is satiated by the nation’s factory farms. It’d be difficult to think of a more startling example of an inversion of what is natural. Modern chickens are descended from tree nesting jungle fowl. In intensive farms they are crammed into barren sheds in their thousands.

Despite their vast size, you may be hard pushed to see them hidden away behind towering hedges in the British countryside. Yet if you’ve ever passed one you’ll have definitely noticed their sickly, cloying smell. Viva! has investigated dozens of broiler sheds over the past 20 years. Depressingly, little changes where life is cheap and profit is always king.

Visiting a broiler shed is a sensory overload – and not in a good way. Each shed houses around 30,000 birds on complexes that can total 250,000 birds or more. Placed as chicks, they are kept on top of their own waste for their short six to seven week lives. It is not an exaggeration to say that, at the end of the cycle, the sheds can be carpeted in birds almost as far as the eye can see. We shouldn’t make the mistake to think that Britain is best. A chicken factory farm will be largely the same in Norfolk as ones in Thailand or South America.

It is important to remember that when profit is the driving force, welfare is a distant consideration – and it is difficult to think of an industry where the pursuit of profit is more of a priority. The stories from chicken catchers of birds popping under the wheels of forklift trucks and being decapitated by sliding cages to keep up with demand are shocking, but the animal welfare concerns go much wider. The pre-slaughter mortality rate from disease or other factors is around 5%. This conceivably means around 47 million chickens die on British factory farms before seven weeks of age.

I have seen this carnage first hand many times. Dead and dying birds, some slowly being buried under the accumulating waste of the living. Chickens with legs so weakened they buckle and struggle to rise from the ammonia soaked litter which leads to hock burns. A chicken catcher I spoke to said he watched as numerous birds died during catching as their hearts literally pop. Longevity is not a consideration on the factory farm.

Research has shown that as much as 92% of all chicken on sale is contaminated with faecal matter. This goes some way to explaining why food poisoning from poultry continues to make almost a quarter of million Britons ill every year. The most common cause in the UK is campylobacter, found on raw or undercooked meat (especially poultry). The meat can be so hazardous that, earlier this year, the NHS issued advice not to wash uncooked chicken because of the risk of spreading bacteria to work surfaces, clothes and utensils. Chicken liver has also been identified as a high-risk food product by the FSA, Environmental Health and Health Protection organisations in England. Whilst the industry makes plenty of noise about improving biosecurity to tackle food poisoning, it is at odds with the rush to kill ever more birds and make ever greater profits. 

Earlier this month David Cameron warned that overuse of antibiotics threatened to take us back to the “dark ages of medicine”. Yet he – and most media outlets – neglected to mention the chicken shed in the room. 50% of all antibiotic usage in Britain is in farming, the majority of which is in intensive livestock production. The largest of which, of course, is the factory farming of chickens for meat – a sector that continues to grow year on year. The irony being that just a few months ago, fears were raised that Government cuts could mean antibiotic resistance in farmed animals could now go undetected. Factory farms can also be great polluters and there have been cases of waterways being contaminated by British units in recent years.

We also still have the ever looming threat of emerging diseases hanging over us. In 2014, there have already been outbreaks of high-pathogenic avian influenza in Libya and India. Bird flu and swine flu may have not led to the deaths of millions yet, but it is widely accepted that the next great pandemic is likely to originate within the walls of an intensive farm.

Some consumers are increasingly looking to consume chicken thinking it is a healthy option. What most may not realise is that intensive modern farming methods have ensured that the fat content has doubled and that a medium sized chicken now contains a pint of fat. Professor Michael Crawford of London Metropolitan University found that chicken contains as much fat, gram for gram, as Big Mac. He analysed chicken thigh meat from several supermarkets – even organic suppliers – and found they contain more than twice as much fat as they did back in 1940, a third more calories and a third less protein.

You would be hard pushed to find an industry as dire as the modern poultry industry. It is a disaster for animals and humans.

The solution for a healthier us and a kinder future is to simply remove yourself from this cycle of destruction and go vegan – or at least take steps in that direction.

This blog is an expanded version of the one that appeared on The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 25 July 2014.


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