LEADING ARTICLE: Does anyone care about chickens?

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No longer a treat for Sunday lunch, the humble chicken is today more likely to be found at Tuesday tea. Kiev or tarragon, Chinese or tandoori, roasted or fried, even McNuggeted, everyone is eating chicken. Around 700 million birds went to the slaughter to satiate British appetites last year. Their lives are grimmer and shorter than the cows, sheep and pigs that compete with them for space on the supermarket shelves, but if sales figures are anything to go by, consumers just don't seem to care. Even some people who call themselves vegetarians eat chicken.

The broilers - the chickens farmed for eating not eggs - are bred for super-fast growth. The chick is born, bloated and butchered all within six weeks - twice as fast as 30 years ago. But their hearts and legs can't keep pace. So if they don't die of heart failure, they tend to suffer leg pain and some are unable to walk. Not that there's much call for walking in the average broiler hut. Even under government recommendations, each chicken gets a space around a quarter of the size of this page .

Yet for all the publicity about free-range products, only one in 50 chickens purchased has not been factory farmed. In a recent Mori poll 35 per cent of people claimed that they made ethical choices when shopping. So how come ethics don't extend to chickens?

The best answer is that chickens who suffer come cheap. A three-pound chicken for a family of four can retail for as little as pounds 2 - half the price of the free-range alternative. However this isn't enough to explain why the free-range market is so miserably small. Even the free-range birds are cheaper than a leg of lamb or a side of beef.

The trouble is that chickens are ugly. They don't elicit the protective passion or guilt that motivates campaigners and consumers about doe-eyed calves or fluffy lambs. Who wants to hug a beaky old hen?

Even where shoppers might be prepared to pay more for broiler comfort, the shop labelling system lacks credibility. In the midst of claims and counter claims that free-range refers only to a slightly bigger barn to house growing chickens, the sophisticated consumer suspects the whole thing may be a ruse to up the price.

In the face of such obstacles to a market-led end to broiler suffering, legislation to change the farming methods looks a tempting alternative. Broiler chickens are alone among Britain's major factory farmed animals in having no specific legislation to protect them - unlike the detailed laws that exist on pigs, calves and battery hens.

The problem is that we do not really know whether the public is willing to pay a few pence more for a chicken sandwich in order to better the lives of broilers. A good next step would be to improve labelling, so that consumers can make more educated choices. If there is a growing taste for happier chickens, the case for legislation will be harder to resist.