Profile: The British chicken: No wonder its feathers are ruffled

A new report shows the high level of antibiotics in chicken feed is bad for them - and could be worse for us.
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It is with mixed feelings that the British public now regards the humble chicken. There it crouches on the supermarket shelf, a pathetic figure, its truncated legs tucked yoga-like inside its decapitated neck, its fat thighs apparently shielding its carcass from further indignity. In a grotesque medieval touch, its major organs have been collected inside a polythene bag and shoved back inside, in a parody of an abdomen.

It is hard to imagine such a passive and put-upon object having the power to fight back. But that, apparently, is just what it's doing. Once a staple food, then a flavoursome treat, then a mass-produced nightmare, then the carrier of dangerously toxic oval offspring, it has mutated once more in the public imagination - this time into a potentially lethal harbourer of incurable diseases.

Last week a 300-page report from the microbiologists at the Department of Health spelt out the dramatic news: that the promiscuous use of growth- promoting drugs in the nation's farms had led to a strain of super-bacteria, apparently resistant to antibiotics and capable of being transferred to human consumers in the middle of Sunday lunch.

At the Soil Association, Richard Young, senior policy adviser, says the threat to health posed by the use of antibiotics in poultry and pigs was infinitely worse than the threat of mad cow disease. "We are facing a major epidemic of diseases which have developed multiple drug resistance," he insists. The Advisory Committee on Microbial Safety of Food, which presented the report, warned that unless drastic action were taken (like, say, banning the use of antibiotics in farming completely, as they do in Sweden), several nasty human conditions, from salmonella to E.coli, would become wholly resistant to antibiotics. Eat enough carelessly farmed chicken, the report implies, and your immune system will start to pack up.

This is bad news for the industry and the country, because chicken is our favourite primary food. We spend more on it than on beef, and we eat more of it than lamb and pork combined - 480,000 tonnes a year. The country's most popular dish is now chicken tikka massala. If the British start to go off chicken, it'll be as revolutionary as giving up tea. But it's been an odd relationship between foodstuff and consumer for some time. The evolution of the nation's favourite bird from the wholesome nursery figure of Higgledy Piggledy (who lays eggs for gentlemen) into a kind of casually virulent Typhoid Mary has accelerated with shocking speed over the past three decades.

Once it was simple. In the Middle Ages, when eating of "four-footed flesh meat" was banned by Church edict, chicken was the only option available. It was a businesslike bird. In Chaucer's The Parlement of Fowles (c 1380), ducks and hens are presented as bourgeois pragmatists, in contrast with the courtly eagles. Chicken was popular all over Europe, simple to nurture and cheap to buy. "I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he is unable to have a chicken in his pot every Sunday," declared Henri IV of France in 1589.

Nearly four centuries went by and the image of the chicken remained stable: a flightless fusspot, picky with its food, panicky at any sign of trouble, a neurotic creature with sharp toenails, mad gleaming eyes and a tiny brain. It stalked the barnyards of the nation, burbling softly to itself, being ravished uncomplainingly by the rooster yet somehow asserting its dignity. In 1951, some 80 per cent of chickens were "free-range".

By the early 1960s, however, the white heat of technology had caught up with the chicken and was about to scorch its tail. Factory farming consigned the birds to a new life indoors: a clean and healthy environment, promised the British Poultry Federation, in which the birds' every need would be accommodated as though in a hotel. The reality was very different. Animal lovers told each other about battery coops, where thousands of birds sat pathetically crammed together in darkness, their muscle turned to fat, existing only to eat and lay eggs, blind, listless and denatured. Even worse were the chicken broiler houses where selective breeding condensed the birds' lifespan. Normal chickens reach their ideal weight and sexual maturity at 18 weeks; in the broiler houses, it took them six or seven weeks, at which age they were slaughtered.

It was the start of a nasty period in chicken husbandry, and soft British hearts went out to the incarcerated poultry. More rumours began to circulate. In Nether Wallop, Hampshire, it was reported, a ghastly apparition escaped from the local broiler house - marble white, long-necked, three feet high, its eyes covered in cataracts, desperately flapping its tiny wings. An urban legend spread about a troup of actors sitting out a long run of Private Lives in the sticks, dining every evening on Kentucky Fried Chicken. Because of the hormones with which Colonel Sanders had pumped the birds to plumpen their breasts, it took just four weeks for the leading man's chest to sprout a wobbling bosom.

Through the 1970s it got worse. "The peak came in 1980," says Jackie Turner of Compassion in World Farming, "when only 1 per cent of British chickens were free-range. The rest were in cages. Some of them were better than others. Some were called 'deep-litter percheries' but the birds were still in enclosures and never let out. Feeding them growth promoters and antibiotics was all part of the same thinking. When you're reducing birds to being meat in a factory system, you don't think twice about giving them a technical fix. It's just providing oil for the assembly line."

The supermarkets detected a shift in the public's perception of chickens: the poor things, sitting in the dark, all squashed together, their growth cycle all awry, born only to lay eggs, die and be eaten. So tragic. The term "free-range" began to appear on egg boxes and, latterly, on the packaging of meat. The greater cost was offset by the increase in flavour and the consumer's freedom from guilt. It was the price of compassion. You wouldn't mind shelling out over the odds, would you, to know that the bird you're eating spent its life enjoying the chicken equivalent of cocktails by the pool?

John Harvey, co-author of the Soil Association document Antibiotic Resistance and Human Health, is not fooled. "It's only a label on a box or a piece of packaging," he says. "There's no guarantee because something's free- range that it comes from a better production process." These days, it seems, the typical chicken spends its life in a better-upholstered class of prison. "The free-range system resembles a boat in a field with a lot of portholes in the side, through which, in theory, the chicken can pop in and out," says Harvey. "But the conditions in which they live are all wrong. Chickens are nervous jungle fowls, they need a lot of shade. If they're kept in groups above a certain number, they become unstable. They're disturbed by odd shapes, like aeroplanes passing overhead. They need shelter. Instead, they're expected to stand in a desert of mud and dirt. So they go back inside, to stand in the dark, pecking each other's feathers out."

Will this dismal picture become a thing of the past? The signs are encouraging. "After 1980 things got better," says Turner. "Today 13 per cent of chickens are free-range, and it's improving." Even if you do not wholeheartedly trust the pronouncements of the British Chicken Information Service, you can put your hopes in the European Council of Ministers, whose July directive ordered the phasing-out of conventional cages, and their complete ban after 2012.

So your conscience may be healthy in the future. But what about the rest of you? Will the chicken continue to threaten the nation's immune systems? "We are not screwing up the chicken," says Peter Bradnock of the British Poultry Meat Federation, which represents the chicken farmers. "The industry is not complacent. We've acted on the findings of the report, most of which we've known about for some time. There are far fewer antibiotics prescribed in agriculture now than there were 10 years ago. And when it comes to growth promoters - or digestion enhancers as we like to call them - what we recommend is proper monitoring and surveillance. The fewer antibiotics, the better."

So there you have it. A new chicken for the new century. What a succession of images is the little fowl's life! We've had the Sunnybrook Farm barnyard idyll chicken; the white-overalled worker chicken in the 1960s factory with his clipboard and performance quota; the glum prisoner in the battery- run stalag, in the Brave New World laboratory of growth injections, in the rampant-hormone freak show; then the free-range, down-shifting retro dream. Now, the industry assures us, the British chicken is to enter a period of squeaky-clean, health-club-visiting, carrot-juice-swilling, Blairite decency with its own personal trainer and pigskin briefcase.

But whether the humble hen's image makeover really does enough to answer the report's findings is still open to question. We must wait for a while yet before knowing whether our greedy relationship with the lowly chook is safe to continue.