Let's stop the cross-Channel codswallop

Britain feeds from factory farms. France knows that quality doesn't go with cruelty. Joanna Blythman debunks some current myths
Raymond Blanc - Britain's favourite French chef - was only seven years old when he first killed a chicken. "We went to a farm nearby and watched the chickens running around. We selected a `coq' or- rooster, then I was put in charge of catching and killing it. There was a whole ritual about it. I had to feather and gut it. We brought it home, my mother cooked it. We knew everything about that chicken before it was on our plates - where it had been raised, what it had eaten, how it had died. We then ate it with a great sense of respect for quality. We had a very close respect for Nature."

If you believe the French stereotypes which abound in Britain, this anecdote will doubtless confirm them. Since the controversy over veal crates began, the French, along with other "Continentals", have been in the dock for their cruel practices. "Je vous accuse!" rants the British press, aided and abetted by our Agriculture Minister William Waldegrave. He wrings his hands, shedding silent tears for all those calves he's forced to send into the untender care of those foreign devils. Mais c'est la vie! What else can he do?

All of a sudden, animal welfare has become a "foreign" problem, an irony not lost on hardened animal welfare campaigners and those of us who see life on both sides of the Channel. "The British invented intensive factory farming. It's too convenient to look over to the other side of the Channel," says Mr Blanc. Double standards? What could he mean?

Go shopping for food in comparable centres of population in Britain and France and you will see. Judged on actions, not words, the French will always come out tops for humanely reared, high-quality food. In France the markets are full of eggs from farmyard hens kept in tiny, humane numbers. No British equivalent. Any self-respecting picerie du coin will be selling properly free-range eggs. Very low probability in Britain.

Every French supermarket will have several rival brands of roasting chickens, reared for at least 81 days, fed on a cereal diet, that have been running around outside all their lives thus qualifying for the EU's "free range- total freedom" tag.

Any significant French town will have a top-notch butcher. You can buy a Bresse chicken (even more exacting standards than those already described), and specially guaranteed meats. The veal will be veau sous la mre, which means that the calf has been kept with its mother and suckled by her outdoors in summer, or in warm barns in winter. It's a highly compassionate sort of veal and sells for about 25-30 per cent more than the next grade down. This is known as veau fermier and approximates to what we now conveniently identify as the more humane "British" system for veal known as loose housing.

Such glittering emporia wouldn't tarnish their names by association with crated veal, or veau de batterie. This sells widely to people who buy it because it is the cheapest. It is exactly the same transaction as price- led British shoppers who pop eggs into their trolleys from crippled battery hens and economy sausages from miserable sows imprisoned in farrowing crates without a second thought.

The French have one of the most developed notions of food quality of any European nation, one that frequently embraces animal welfare. It is obvious to most French people that a badly treated animal will produce bad meat, and that well-cared for animals produce good meat, because they realise that meat does not just pop up on their shelves. It has a history. The French do not go around with bleeding hearts, talking about animal welfare, but in many respects their standards of husbandry are higher than ours.

On the equivalent of Pebble Mill at One, for example, you'll regularly see Jean-Pierre Coffe, a top food journalist, talking shoppers through the nuances of different categories of food. His line doesn't vary. Industrial- factory farmed food is "merde". On veal, his message is loud and clear. Crated veal is "dgueulasse" - disgusting, don't buy it!

Veal is a good example of how animal husbandry techniques are much more widely debated in France. As long ago as 1982, the French equivalent of our Consumers' Association launched a boycott of veal (which nearly bankrupted the industry), on the question of hormones. An action unprecedented in Britain. "People were disgusted by this horrible white meat, tough, stringy, swollen with water and hormones," explains Mr Blanc. Now "sans hormones" guarantees are standard in supermarkets. Farmers found with black-market hormones have been severely dealt with and sent to jail.

You can put the French interest in animal husbandry down to enlightened self-interest, led by the belly. But according to Ghislain Zuccolo, who runs PMAF (Protection Mondiale des Animaux de Ferme), there is a good response to straight animal welfare campaigning, too. Mr Zuccolo last year organised a tour of France with a scaled-up model of the battery cage. "We had anticipated a cool response, but it was terrific," he explains. This year, a tour on the subject of veal crates will be staged.

Foie gras is the ultimate British evidence of French cruelty. Geese and ducks raised for foie gras spend four months out of doors, in a poultry heaven that would make the anonymous broiler turkeys and chickens that go into British kievs green. French vets will argue that in the traditional method of gavage, or fattening, which is done by hand, the birds go along with the feeding. They say that if gavage is stopped, there is no physiological damage to the bird or its liver.

This is distinct from the repellent factory farming of foie gras commonly practised in eastern Europe, where birds are locked into a vice-like mechanical feeder, while a nozzle is stuffed down their throats. In these systems, gullet injuries are common, mortality is high and the finished livers are considered to be of very inferior quality.

You can debate the nuances of foie gras production. But you are on shaky ground if you try to argue that gavage is worse than the farrowing crate, the battery cage or the routine mutilations, without anaesthetic, inflicted on British farm animals. Why are we less aware of these though they touch our daily food? Ignorance, hypocrisy or a bit of both?

And what of frogs legs? We put them on a par with heathen customs such as eating spatchcocked rat. But is this because we are told the unfortunate Indian frogs are not humanely killed, or because of our disinclination to accept that some food may come from living things?

"As a nation the British specialise in not wanting to know where their food comes from. I sometimes wonder if they know that a bloody carrot comes out of the ground. The French are still much more a nation of small producers, much closer to food production, with a clear idea of food quality," says Mr Blanc, who, incidentally, supports the abolition of veal crates.

The common ground is that animal welfare and food quality are two sides of the same coin. Instead of the sterile swapping of cross-Channel stereotypes, we could make this the basis of a new Entente Cordiale. Then we might make some progress.