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Dear supermarkets, even the government backs higher welfare standards for chickens

It seems that for meat chickens – where the big profits are – retailers will only be dragged kicking and screaming into line with ethical practices

Chris Packham
Sunday 10 April 2022 13:50 BST
For years, the bigger players in the UK supermarket field – those who boast of how seriously they take animal welfare – have refused to engage
For years, the bigger players in the UK supermarket field – those who boast of how seriously they take animal welfare – have refused to engage (AFP via Getty)

Throughout history, many have used the law to justify injustice. This is often how our supermarkets excuse or hide the animal cruelty that is rampant in their supply chains. Branding that proclaims “100 per cent British” is usually splashed big and bright on a pack of chicken.

A year ago, I launched a petition urging the likes of Tesco, Morrisons and Co-op to sign the Better Chicken Commitment. This science-backed welfare initiative takes the tragically malformed “FrankenChickens” reared in overcrowded barns off the shelves. I’m thrilled that nearly a quarter of a million people have added their names to that petition – and it’s not hard to see why.

More than one billion chickens are reared and killed for meat in Britain every year, and the vast majority of them are subjected to nightmarish conditions condoned by British laws. It’s a grim reality that hides behind the “welfare assured” story on the supermarket chicken labels. But despite having exposed these ghastly truths, retailers still won’t act and they continue to argue over whether there’s even a serious problem. It’s a case of head in the sand, bad business as usual.

Step in Defra. This year, the UK government has for the first time officially backed the Better Chicken Commitment. Defra has said it will “prioritise” its implementation through subsidies. At last, this is a game changer.

It’s not a ban, but it’s a very clear acknowledgment of the problem and critically, it is also an endorsement of the solution we’ve been shouting about. This would not have happened if the scientific and video evidence we have gathered wasn’t so cruelly clear.

Everyone who sees the tens of thousands of sick, lame birds crammed into crowded factory farms tends to immediately agree. Well, now it seems everyone except the retailers, because all we hear from them are the same old justifications which perpetuate horrific animal cruelty.

This is incredibly saddening. I had hoped they would live up to British values and take this opportunity to do good, just like they did with caged eggs. But it seems that for meat chickens – where the big profits are – retailers will only be dragged kicking and screaming into line with ethical practices. Having said that, thankfully there are some good guys – please remember that when deciding who deserves your trust and money.

M&S and Waitrose led the way in signing the Better Chicken Commitment. Over 300 companies including KFC, Subway and every major French retailer have also joined. So it’s not just for the more affluent customers: the BCC provides an affordable, high-welfare middle ground too.

For years, the bigger players in the UK supermarket field, those who boast of how seriously they take animal welfare, have refused to engage. They say their chickens are fine, that the conditions are “spacious”, that the BCC is too costly, that it has environmental problems, that Brits won’t pay a premium to tackle the cruelty – and so on.

But it appears that this last point is not true. A recent YouGov poll found that 78 per cent of British people oppose cruelty to farm animals, even when taking cost savings to themselves into account. And still supermarkets claim we want our food cheap at the expense of basic animal welfare standards.

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What’s the first line on Morrisons’ chicken welfare website? “All Morrisons-label Fresh Chicken is 100 per cent British.” So what? All it means is they adhere to certain British laws which are common around the world. Soon “British” will be a proxy for blatantly poor welfare standards now that France, Denmark and Germany are overtaking us and upping theirs. Don’t listen to what they say – watch what they do. These are tired old deflections, excuses motivated by greed.

And now even the UK government explicitly acknowledges that these “100 per cent British” conditions are not good enough. They have admitted there is a serious problem within the British chicken industry and they have made it explicitly clear that the Better Chicken Commitment is the solution.

So with Defra behind us, what’s left to write about? We all want this, we all agree it can be done, we all agree it should be done. The problem is the retailers. They’re now on an island of their own, still mumbling about how much they care for animals and the planet whilst the rest of the world strides forward. The question is which one of the big players will have the sense and foresight to jump before they are finally pushed?

We can’t afford to wait. We need commitments to the public that things will get better. We need to hold these companies accountable and not accept their invalid justifications any longer. Let’s ask for more from British companies like Tesco, Morrisons and the self-proclaimed “ethical” retailer Co-op. We are all sick of their excuses.

Morrisons says all its chicken already meets seven of the nine BCC standards and is raised to above Red Tractor standards. “We are also the only retailer in Europe to ask our fresh chicken suppliers to require chicken to be born into the barn in which it will be raised by 2025; 80 per cent of our fresh chicken meets this standard already. We also actively monitor for any malpractice in our supply chain; we will never tolerate it or look the other way. And if we ever find it, we will act swiftly and decisively.”

Tesco says: “We require all our suppliers to uphold high animal welfare standards.”

Co-op Food says: “As a leading ethical retailer, looking after the animals in our care and overall animal welfare is a priority for us, our customers and members. All our fresh chicken is in line with, or exceeds, industry and government-approved standards, and we also have our own strict welfare policies in place which are monitored through the Co-op’s own dedicated chicken farming group.”

Chris Packham CBE is a naturalist, nature photographer, television presenter and author

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