Celebrity Chefs Cause Free-Range Boom

UK - Consumer concern at the conditions on some intensive broiler farms has prompted a massive increase in the number of free-range birds being bred in Scotland.
calendar icon 24 June 2008
clock icon 5 minute read

Some leading Scottish producers are turning to a more natural way of rearing to meet the growing demand for higher welfare birds, according to Scotland on Sunday.

This follows a series of programmes earlier this year by TV chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, highlighting appalling conditions in giant broiler chicken production farms in England, the article continues.

It is reported that Grampian Country Foods is planning to double the number of birds it gets from free-range farms because of booming consumer demand.

Furthermore, The 2 Sisters Group is planning to open six new farms on the east coast of Scotland in which the chicken numbers have been reduced to meet new welfare standards.

Although increased production of birds reared in less intensive conditions will not lead to a fall in chicken prices, it will increase consumer choice.

The British Poultry Council (BPC), which represents producers, says demand for birds reared in less intensive conditions has doubled and was given a further boost by the findings of the two chefs.

Executive officer Jeremy Blackburn said, "There was a spike in demand after the programmes and that looks as if it could be sustained. Producers are reacting to that and that is good news for consumers."

Chicken has become Britain's most popular meat, making up more than 40 per cent of all meat consumed. Many eat it at least twice a week and more than 90 per cent is broiler chickens reared in indoor systems.

In a joint attack in January on the conditions in which around 855 million meat chickens are reared each year in the UK, the chefs revealed the crowded conditions the animals live in and the poor quality of the meat, and urged customers, supermarkets and producers to invest in birds given a better quality of life. Mr Oliver said most people expected to be able to buy a chicken for just £2.50 when it should be sold for at least £4.

Grampian Country Food Group, which supplies major supermarket chains, wants to increase free-range production from 45,000 to 90,000 a week and boost organic output by 5,000 birds weekly to 20,000. A spokesman for the firm confirmed the chefs' campaign against chicken farm conditions had impacted on the already changing market.

He said, "The expansion is focused on free-range because that is where the most demand is. It is fair to say the chefs had an impact and it is sensible for us to offer an increased choice."

Grampian hopes the news will combat recent negative publicity after it was fined £16,000 for putting too much effluent into the sewage system in Coupar Angus, Perthshire.

The 2 Sisters Group, which has a large chicken processing factory at Letham, Angus, says it has identified a requirement for six new farms this year to satisfy demand.

"We are looking for more high-welfare and free-range birds across the spectrum," a spokesman told Scotland on Sunday.

BPC figures show that the free-range market has more than doubled from about 2 per cent of the market three years ago to 5% now and could reach 7 per cent by the end of this year, fuelled partially by the chefs' programmes.

"The farmers will not do this unless consumers want it," the BPC's Mr Blackburn said. "What consumers are after is assurance [about quality and welfare], accessibility and affordability. But free-range chickens cost more to produce so consumers have to pay more. I hope that rising food prices and the credit crunch do not reverse this."

Animal welfare groups said the move should have been made sooner. Libby Anderson, spokeswoman for Advocates for Animals commented, "Broiler chickens have been the hidden victims of intensive farming methods for far too long. However, it's about more than reducing stocking densities – birds need to see the sun and move about in the fresh air."

Jeff Bland, head chef at the Balmoral Hotel, said supply of free-range chickens is a problem. He said, "At the moment it's the supermarkets who are driving the change, and they need to hold on to this commitment to move forward. They keep squeezing their suppliers, trying to get them to produce more for less and as long as supermarkets want cheap chickens it's impossible to completely raise the quality. We all have to be prepared to pay a bit more if we want good quality."

One problem for the companies involved is getting planning permission for new chicken farms. In Scotland, several schemes have recently been refused planning permission after complaints by local residents.

Peter Loggie, the poultry policy manager for the National Union of Farmers Scotland, told Scotland on Sunday, "Consumers want free-range chickens in the shops but don't necessarily want a chicken farm down the road."

View the Scotland on Sunday story by clicking here.
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