Why a happy chicken is the rarest breed of all
Killing an animal for meat is never pleasant, but it helps to know that it has led the best life possible
Sunday September 12, 2004
I wrung a chicken's neck this morning. A cockerel's neck, to be precise. I've probably done a couple of dozen or so in the past few years, since I regularly started raising my male chicks for the pot, and I'm getting better at it.
The technique, which I gleaned from various old poultry-rearing manuals, requires grasping the legs of the bird firmly in one fist (my right) and the head firmly between the middle fingers of the other hand (my left), and then pulling the two hands apart, firm and fast, in the opposite direction from each other (legs up, head down seems to work well). It has to be done with confidence and determination, as the neck vertebrae actually need to part company for the dispatch to be efficient. Provided this is achieved, the effect is fairly instant, and the bird is immediately rendered quite lifeless, bar the odd twitch.
That may all sound a bit grisly to some. But I feel pretty good about raising and killing my own meat birds. Relatively speaking, that is. I think I've got their death down to a minimum of stress and suffering - in other words, it compares favourably, in terms of speed and pain, to the death of most birds at the hands (or teeth, or claws) of a creature that intends to eat them. And, of course, that's how almost every bird, wild or domesticated, meets its end.
But with my cockerels what I feel best about is not so much the way they die as the way they live. They scamper about in a grassy field, strutting their stuff and pecking the living daylights out of the grass, bugs and slugs, along with the corn and maize mix we scatter for them. In other words, they spend all day doing properly chickeny stuff. As a result, they taste properly chickeny at the end of it all.
Compare and contrast with standard broiler chickens, reared in their millions of millions around the world (including about 800 million a year here in the UK alone). They live short, uncomfortable and wholly unnatural lives. The resulting bland, tasteless pith, like papier-mache without enough glue, is a malleable food commodity that is, with the addition of the full battery of artificial flavourings, conveniently moulded and extruded into all kinds of ready-made meals and fast-food products. And it accounts for an astonishing 98 per cent of all the chicken meat we eat in this country.
For those of you who haven't heard the worst about intensive chicken farming, let me summarise briefly: a unique breed of chicken called the Ross Cobb, genetically engineered over hundreds of generations to be inherently obese, is raised from an egg to a two-kilo bird in a mere six weeks (it would take one of my cockerels getting on for 20 weeks to make that weight). At the end of this process, each bird has a space on the floor slightly smaller than an A4 sheet of paper.
The litter of wood shavings in the shed is not changed once during the six weeks. The resulting dung is so high in ammonia that, from four weeks on in the cycle, many of the birds suffer serious abrasions, known as 'hock burns' on their legs.
Every day, dozens of dead birds, usually expired from stress-induced heart attacks, are removed from the sheds. Premature mortality is measured in 'acceptable per percentages' of five to 10 per cent per crop. Across the industry, that's well over 50 million chickens that die before they reach their slaughter weight. (In theory, these birds are banned from the human food chain and go to make pet food, fertiliser or maggots for anglers. But it is far from rare for this meat to be illegally recycled for human consumption.)
Compassion in World Farming has argued that the broiler bird is such a genetic freak that it is impossible to raise it on this regime without inevitable suffering in a significant (more than 30 per cent) proportion of the population. To farm it at all, it maintains, should technically be illegal under EC animal welfare legislation. The organisation points to the undisputed fact that the parent birds in the Cobb breeding programme (the ones that lay the eggs that hatch into the broiler birds) are reared on a completely different feed regime - effectively a starvation diet, that leaves them in a permanent state of hunger. This is because, on the same diet as their children are destined to receive, they would invariably die of obesity before they could ever reach sexual maturity.
You may or may not have heard all this before. If you have, then why are you (98 per cent of you) still buying this rubbish? You didn't know you were? Be in no doubt that, unless someone is specifically, loudly, unambiguously taking the trouble to tell you otherwise (by using the words 'free range' or 'organic' on a label or menu), all the chicken you eat is made in this way.
What's bizarre is that we seem to have a completely different set of moral scruples about laying hens than we do about meat birds. The battle on behalf of the poor beleaguered laying hen has, over the past 30 years or so, been fought by the consumer with some passion and, if not won, then at least fairly honourably drawn. Free-range eggs (as opposed to battery eggs laid by hens in tiny cages), now account for about 50 per cent of all UK egg sales to the public (though the food industry continues to use vast quantities of battery eggs).
If nothing else, that proves that, when it comes to the way our food is being produced, consumers do have teeth. It's time to sharpen them again, urgently, by chewing on chicken that has lived a half decent life. And by boycotting the kind that you can suck through a straw.
· Hugh is now running regular cookery courses and local food events at the new River Cottage HQ, near Bridport in Dorset. Please contact email@example.com, or call 01308 420020