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Spend & Save

Consuming Issue: The truth about supermarket meat

Images of animals abound in everyday life, from children's cereal packets to the BBC's Springwatch. Britons keep 27 million pets. Yet most people forget about animal welfare as soon as they enter a shop.

Which is a shame, because the UK has 926 million farm animals – 30 times more chickens, sheep and pigs than cats and dogs. Most are kept in conditions that would charitably be described as mean, and probably more accurately as cruel.

This may be because consumers trust retailers, or do not care about animals, or do not have the money to make a choice, but the evidence suggests that when shoppers are presented with a practical alternative, they buy the more expensive, higher-welfare meat.

Chickens represent the most pressing welfare issue, simply because there are so many of them – 823 million meat chickens. Despite a spike in organic sales last year, 81 per cent of broilers sold are "standard" birds.

Crammed 20 per square metre, they amble their freakily-plump bodies round litter soiled with their own excreta, which burns their legs. By the time they are killed at six weeks, 27 per cent struggle to walk.

Around a third of the 4.9 million pigs are kept in similarly unnatural and unsatisfactory conditions. Few have the bedding or manipulable material required by law, and spend their lives wandering round barren concrete pens. In 2007, retailers admitted that 88 per cent of pigs had their tails snipped off to prevent their pen-mates gnawing them out of boredom. Britain imports half its pork from foreign farms where conditions are often worse.

Dairy cows have been engineered so that their swollen udders produce 100 pints a day. Some are kept indoors in "zero-grazing" units. Partridges and other breeding game birds have a particularly grim existence, locked in tiny, featureless boxes with no sensory stimulation.

The RSPCA, the country's most respected animal welfare organisation, said: "The majority of meat, poultry, dairy and eggs in the UK come from animals that are reared to the industry's baseline standards, much of which the RSPCA finds unacceptable."

The pressure group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) describes an even worse situation: "Many supermarkets continue to sell produce from animals bred to extremes and predisposed to welfare issues.

"These include meat chickens which grow to 2kg in less than 40 days, often suffering severe lameness and heart failure and dairy cattle pushed beyond their physical limits to produce huge milk yields, often suffering lameness, mastitis and infertility before being culled after only three rounds of milk production."

Shoppers have the power to change the situation. While broiler chickens represent the biggest problem, their egg-laying counterparts light the way forward. Standing at 11 per cent in 1994, sales of free-range eggs reached a high of 38 per cent last year.

Since CIWF published its last animal welfare ranking of retailers (available at ciwf.org.uk, it put Marks & Spencer top and Morrisons and Asda bottom), stores have made some improvements. Sainsbury's is moving all its fresh chicken to higher welfare; M&S is phasing out farrowing crates for pigs, while Asda is finding new markets for unwanted male dairy calves.

The Soil Association organic mark is the gold standard for animal welfare, followed by RSPCA Freedom Foods, which now certifies 7 per cent of chickens and 21 per cent of pigs. For chickens, the RSPCA sets a stocking density of 30kg per square metre – about 15 birds – and bans the fastest-growing breeds.

Tesco sells standard fresh chicken breasts for £8.89, Freedom Foods for £12.49 and organic at £17.49 per kilo, a 71 per cent rise for each jump in welfare. But eating less meat and using all of the animals (for leftovers, soup stock, etc) can ease the difference.

For anyone concerned about animal welfare, it's a price worth paying. In his book Limping Towards Eden, John Webster, emeritus professor of animal husbandry at Bristol University, castigates the "soggy majority" of shoppers who fail to match cuddly feelings with action: "I accuse, above all, those whose 'love' of animals amounts to no more than a spasm of sentimental indulgence, to be turned on and off, at a whim; those will will say 'aaaah' at the sight of lambs in a field, weep at a film like Bambi, cheer at a film like Babe, but not give a thought to the provenance of the meat they buy in the supermarket (or worse, simply switch their minds off as they reach for the chicken nugget)."

Heroes & Villains

Hero: Huw Irranca-Davies

Despite having no commercial interest in bluefin tuna, Britain's fisheries minister has promised to back a proposal to ban its sale on the grounds that it is endangered. He also sounds determined to reform the absurdity of the EU's fisheries policy, which leads to 40 to 60 per cent of fish caught in European waters being thrown back into the sea. Such policy, he says in a blast of candour, is "indefensible".

Villain: Ofgem

And so to a new award to honour Britain's worst regulator. The golden envelope is opened, and the winner is... Ofgem. This week, internal memos showed the energy regulator was worried it might be "swamped" with calls from suppliers if it included a crackdown on dodgy marketing in their licence conditions. Instead, the likes of British Gas will follow a voluntary code of conduct.

Following Ofgem's failure for years to stop the scandal of pre-payment meters – and its current marked failure to curb prices – can there have been a meeker regulator? Being the country's worst regulator is particularly impressive this year, given the strong challenge from the Financial Services Authority, which thought its job was to be chummy with the banks.