Opinion Former Article

RSPCA: Shoppers give cheap chicken the bird

A new RSPCA poll shows the recent campaign on the plight of meat chickens reared in the UK each year - highlighted in programmes presented by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - has changed people's buying habits.

The poll shows an amazing 73 per cent of consumers said that since recently discovering standard chickens were farmed in poor conditions they now buy chickens that have had a better life.

Nearly three out of four of people feel supermarkets should only sell higher welfare chicken such as Freedom Food, free-range or organic. This result directly supports the RSPCA's January campaign asking people to sign a petition calling on supermarkets to sell only higher welfare chicken by 2010, and for shoppers to buy only birds labelled Freedom Food*, free-range or organic.

So far some 53,000 people have signed the petition but to date no retailer has publicly accepted the RSPCA's challenge and committed to only selling higher welfare chicken by the 2010 deadline.

The survey also revealed that:

. 27 per cent of people said they are willing to pay an extra two pounds for higher welfare chicken, while 22 per cent said they are willing to pay an extra three pounds
. A staggering 90 per cent said they buy higher welfare chicken because they are concerned about how they are farmed - over and above their own health and taste**
. Almost 80 per cent said animal welfare is an important consideration when buying chicken
. 70 per cent of people say they usually buy higher welfare chicken

According to recent press reports many retailers have seen a dramatic increase in sales of higher welfare chicken since January. Sainsbury's actually reported a staggering 50 per cent hike in sales of Freedom Food, free-range and organic chicken. There is even evidence of supermarkets selling out of higher welfare chicken, and putting up signs promising to resolve the shortage in supply.

Whilst these results show the campaign has been successful the RSPCA is concerned that because of a lack of clear labelling and confusing claims made by some supermarkets, many shoppers are still not sure what is and isn't higher welfare chicken.

In response the RSPCA has launched an online Good Chicken Guide - www.rspca.org.uk/chicken - to spell out which chickens have had a better life and where to buy them.

Dr Marc Cooper, an RSPCA farm animal scientist, said: "The results of our poll are extremely encouraging and show that the campaign has begun to make a real difference with shoppers. However, in reality we know that there is not enough higher welfare chicken available to meet the demands of the 70 per cent of people in our poll who claim to buy it.

"We think some retailers have confused consumers about their chicken products, so we hope our Good Chicken Guide will clarify what chicken the RSPCA recommends and help people to make an informed choice.

"Our clear message to shoppers is simple: if it doesn't say it's Freedom Food, free-range or organic then don't buy it! And to retailers: ditch standard chicken and only sell higher welfare!"

The RSPCA is today (Saturday 1 March 2008) taking out large adverts in The Mirror and Daily Mail urging chicken eaters to use the Good Chicken Guide and pay a little extra for a bird which has had a better life. The ad will also appear in the Metro on Tuesday 4 March.

The problems for chickens produced to the industry's standards:

. Some 855 million chickens are reared each year in the UK - that's over 90 per cent of the estimated 900 million or so farm animals reared each year in the country.
. About 95 per cent of these birds are reared to the industry's standards. These standards allocate less space than a sheet of A4 paper to each chicken in a shed - that's even less space than is given to an egg-laying battery hen.
. They are also kept in near constant dim light. This discourages activity to maximise their growth and they are only given a few hours of complete darkness each day in which to rest properly. Long periods of light encourage them to eat more and therefore grow more quickly.
. The birds are also bred to grow very quickly which can cause a variety of health problems such as heart failure and lameness.

The RSPCA's welfare standards

The RSPCA standards can be applied to free-range, organic and indoor systems for chicken. The RSPCA wants to see all chickens reared to these standards - used by Freedom Food members - which have been shown to benefit chicken in several ways. The standards require for example:
. The use of genetically slower growing breeds of chickens to help prevent the severe health problems associated with higher growth rates. (The RSPCA's standards specify that the average genetic growth rate of the birds must not exceed 45g per day.)
. 25 per cent more space for indoor reared birds than industry standards, to allow birds to move around and display natural behaviour, such as flapping their wings.
. Up to 10 times brighter lighting than industry standards and a proper dark period to allow chickens an adequate period for rest. By 2010, chickens will also have to be provided with natural light.
. The provision of objects, such as straw bales to perch on and pecking objects to play with to encourage activity and the expression of natural behaviour.

Notes to editors:

*Freedom Food is the RSPCA's welfare focused farm assurance and food labelling scheme. The Freedom Food logo on products such as meat chickens gives consumers the reassurance that the animal has come from an environment that has been inspected to the RSPCA's standards for rearing, transport and where relevant, slaughter. Freedom Food approves indoor, free-range and organic systems for chickens where its standards are met.
**This supports the Co-op's latest consumer poll on ethics in which animal welfare emerged as the second most important area of concern for members after ethical trading and above the environment.
. A poll was carried out amongst 2,011 people aged 16 and over by TNS between 8/2/2008 and 10/2/2008, and between 15/2/2008 and 17/2/2008
. Media kit - the Press Office can make the following materials available:
- Broadcast-quality footage and photos of standard and Freedom Food indoor-reared chickens
- Broadcast-quality footage of interviews with RSPCA scientists on chicken production
- A PDF of the advert.

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More Articles by RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) ...

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