Star chef brings Tesco's chickens home to roost

But the supermarket giant wants Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to pay a huge bill for his campaign to give better lives to its birds

Tesco has demanded that the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall pay more than £86,000 for putting his concerns about chicken welfare to its shareholders.

The Channel 4 presenter is putting a resolution to Tesco's AGM that would force it to adopt RSPCA standards or renounce its claim to allow its birds a life free of pain. The motion was tabled before a final deadline, but Tesco has demanded he pay £86,888 for posting it separately to its 235,000 shareholders. It has given Fearnley-Whittingstall until noon on Wednesday to find the money.

The chef believes the move is a hardline tactic to kill off his campaign, but he says he is determined his resolution will be heard at the AGM in Birmingham on 27 June.

As well as making a five-figure donation, he is making an emergency public appeal today at his website chickenout.tv. He will hold an internet auction of prizes, the top prize being his offer to travel to the winner's home and cook a free-range chicken meal for six. A fishing trip for 10 is among the other prizes.

Sales of free-range chickens have soared by 50 per cent this year, since the chef exposed the life of an indoor broiler chicken on his Channel 4 programme, Hugh's Chicken Run.

More than a quarter of birds kept in sheds of 50,000 suffer leg problems, because they walk on sawdust saturated in their urine. Many die of heart failure.

After Tesco declined to be filmed on camera for his new series, the River Cottage presenter came up with the idea of demanding a change in its policy at its AGM. He duly obtained the statutory support of 100 shareholders and tabled the resolution before the final deadline on 16 May.

But Tesco – which seems to have got wind of the move – had sent off its AGM papers to shareholders at least a day before. The supermarket says that it needed to ensure shareholders received all the publicity material in time for the meeting.

Fearnley-Whittingstall says the previous year Tesco sent out its AGM pack two weeks after the deadline.

He appealed to Tesco to waive the bill, but the store informed him on Friday night that he had two-and-a-half working days to pay. He told The Independent on Sunday: "I think Tesco should waive this bill, which it is at its discretion to do. At the same time, it's clear that it doesn't really want this resolution."

Tesco said that the company had not charged anti-poverty charity War on Want for a critical resolution to its AGM last year, because it had contacted the company in advance, whereas Fearnley-Whittingstall had not. "We think it's unfair on our shareholders to bear the cost of additional circulation of material that, if he had contacted us in advance, we may well have included," said spokesman Jon Church. "The costs are simply those of printing and distributing the resolution and the proxy cards. We didn't have to put it in at all."

Like Asda and Morrisons, Tesco stocks the most basic animals certified under the poultry industry's Assured Chicken Production standard. Fearnley-Whittingstall believes retailers should at least meet the standards laid down by the RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme. Preferably, he says, birds should be free range.

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