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Free as a bird?

Are you fed up with Jamie Oliver telling you what to do? With more and more farmers markets and fine food delivery schemes springing up on Merseyside, there's no excuse for buying a two quid supermarket chicken. Is there?

Published on January 14th 2010.

Free as a bird?

Anne Benson says chicken on the cheap is a false economy

I get this argument all the time, why should I pay more for one free-range/organic chicken when I can get, at least, two for £5 at my local supermarket: Don’t you know I have a family to feed? On a budget?

Eat a free-range or
an organic chicken once and you will never look back,
I promise you.
If it means chicken becomes more
of a treat than
an everyday
food, so be it

Let's start with some statistics. The average supermarket chicken contains nearly a pint of water, and a pint of water weighs over 1lb.

In the average 35 days of its miserable life (this is half the time it took to mature 30 years ago), your fast growing supermarket chicken's meat often contains as much fat as a Big Mac.

You do the maths, and the pound-for-pound argument which says that intensively reared meat is better value than the free range or organic starts to collapse.

The places these intensely-reared chickens spend their short lives are not for the squeamish. In a typical shed, you can get around 25,000 birds all packed together with no natural light. “Night time” lasts just four hours a day as this encourages the chickens to sleep less and eat more. They start to peck each other, fight, and become more and more aggressive.

Your intensively reared chicken can also contain traces of antibiotics, have hock burns from standing in its own excrement and bones so spongy they can be minced up to make hot dogs.

Farmers rearing them can often expect to be paid just 3p a bird by supermarkets.

So why do it? Well, we all love breast meat don’t we? So the more we can fatten chickens up on the cheap, the better. That is the theory anyway, but let’s get down to the real point. These birds don’t taste of anything; they are floury, tasteless and worthless.

The fact that chickens don't get any exercise, means they put on a huge quantity of fat.

There are now more calories from fat in the average chicken than from protein. And the fat is impossible to avoid because much of it is under the skin and soaks into the meat during cooking.

Eat a free-range/organic chicken once and you will never look back, I promise you. If it means chicken becomes more of a treat than an everyday food so be it. Give me one delicious, juicy free-range chicken baked in its juices, bursting with flavour, over sawdust anytime.

If cost is still the issue, think about how much you can get from one chicken. A roast one day, then use the leftovers for a risotto or stir-fry, then take the carcass and create a great soup (including the giblets). Already you have just got three dishes out of one bird. Add more vegetables and have less meat and it is even a healthier option.

Indulge, celebrate, enjoy and know that what you are eating is not filling your belly with chemicals and watery rubbish but just beautiful, satisfying taste.

Anne Benson is chairman of Wirral Farmers’ Market and one of the organisers of the Wirral Food and Drink Festival.

We don't know how lucky we are, says Jennifer Eccles

I remember chicken as a huge treat when I was younger, and I'm not going back to the War either. I'm thinking of the 1980s. We were Thatcher's offspring and, dwelling in the unemployment wasteland that was Knowsley, there was precious little money to spend on luxuries. For most, chicken was as rare as hens' teeth.

But how times have changed. Increased production technology means good, cheap food is available to all. Chicken is one of the best sources of protein there is, and with prices as low as £2 for a whole bird, it is now within reach of most people with mouths to feed.

It is healthier than red meat and versatile too. Even if an intensively reared chicken is lacking a bit in flavour, surely that's not the point if you've got hungry bellies. And everyone can add a bit of seasoning!

We really don't know how lucky we are. I'm not about to go on about the starving millions in Africa, or to start saying “for what we are about to receive”, but don't you think this stuff about only buying free range and organic all sounds a bit elitist and, well, ungrateful?

Are animals really more important than people? I think we should grow more chickens in the barns and try to feed the world this cheap, wholesome protein

Are animals really more important than people? I think we should grow more chickens in the barns and try to feed the world this cheap, wholesome protein.

Around 90 per cent of us clearly can see sense on this, which is why we go for the obvious option. People don't give a damn if their Saturday night chow mein, or their sandwiches for school have come from a feathered friend which has had a nice life pecking about in the woods or not. Not when they've got a massive mortgage to worry about.

And you can tut-tut about Bernard Matthews and Turkey Twizzlers, but you might well find that your posh organic chicken that you've just lashed £8 on has come from none other than Guess Who. It's a lucrative and cynical business.

Free range chickens aren't really free range anyway. Some are housed in a huge shed with just a small opening into the outside world, the size of an A4 sheet of paper, miles away, especially if there are 10,000 other chickens obscuring the view! Others are often more diseased than battery birds, owing to drinking from waterholes contaminated by faeces. And don't even get me started on the risk of a bird flu epidemic starting among outdoor flocks.

Let's be realistic: The slaughter of any animal is not a nice business. You either eat meat or you don't.

So forget whatever your chicken is meant to be pumped up with, this really is the only argument that holds water.

This week marks the start of the Chicken Out campaign on Channel 4. Here are some good places for free range and organic poultry

  • Shaw Meats @ Hope Street and Lark Lane Farmers Markets (third Sunday and fourth Saturday of the month) or Wirral Farmers Market (second Saturday). 016973 44328.

  • Weatheroak Ostrich Farm @ Hope Street and Wirral only (see above) recently sold us the best free range chicken we've ever tasted. £4.99 a kilo, and we got three separate meals for four people out of it. 01253 836386.

  • PD Willacy@ Wirral Farmers Market. 01253 883470.
  • The Scotch Beef Shop, High Street, Woolton. L25. 0151 428 1281.

  • Holly Tree Farm, Chester Road, Knutsford. 01565 651835.

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16 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Graham BandageJanuary 8th 2008.

Yes, but you can't eat a plasma telly. They'd be better off with organic food to be honest, or any food really.

SarahJanuary 8th 2008.

I think people should care more about how these chickens are suffering, regardless of your income. I'm skint but there are some things I wouldn't ever be part of. Where's your conscience? And you better hope reincarnation isn't real because I bet you'll all come back as chickens...

Ken the CockerelJanuary 8th 2008.

Don't get so eggcited, Hilda!

ali JJanuary 8th 2008.

Its baby calves tonight on Kill it, Cook it, Eat it - but don't worry I went out at lunchtime and bought some vegetarian sausages and tuna fishcakes. (scary amount of fat in them tho') I also checked the cost of a measly sized organic chicken (around £9.00) - beans on toast anyone?

Jamie OliverJanuary 8th 2008.

Go and sit on a Turkey Twizzler

Disco DaveJanuary 8th 2008.

There are still plenty of people who can't afford to eat the free range chickens. They would like to, I'm sure, but have to make do. It's all about choice and meddlers like Jamie Oliver need to wake up to the real world of mortgages and bills and stop telling everyone what to do. It makes my blood boil.

AnonymousJanuary 8th 2008.

They might not be able to afford organic food, but they've all got 40 inch plasma tellies.

AnonymousJanuary 8th 2008.

Anne Benson is clearly correct. There can be no justification for the way these flocks are treated. It makes me sick just thinking about eating one of these intensively reared chickens. I would rather never eat chicken again.

DebsJanuary 8th 2008.

Once you've seen chickens having fun in a dustbath, squabbling over a worm or running when you call their name, there is no way you can eat meat from intensively farmed hens. I'm young, have a mortgage and am on a nurses wage. I'm skint but I just eat less meat per meal. If the subject were dogs people would be protesting on the street.

Rhode Island RedJanuary 8th 2008.

I bet that fat woman holds her knife like a pen as well.

Rev. Kenneth BartlettJanuary 8th 2008.

If you have been daft enough to have been conned into signing up to the Tory dream of owning your own enormous mortgage, the unhealthy stress and misery it causes is all the more reason for you to spend what money you have on proper food that you will enjoy, that will keep you healthy and make you feel good.If you choose to eat crap and inflict it upon your children, you will most likely burn in Hell after a short and horrific life made wretched by ill-health.

Hilda the TurkeyJanuary 8th 2008.

Them Chickens can go **** themselves, the dirty little bitches.

Grace JJanuary 8th 2008.

i have decided to go veggie after watching Kill it, Cook it, Eat it. the program was about lamb and it made me sick the things they do to the animals. This lamb hadnt even been away from its mother or even seen the outside world it has definatley opened my eyes on how cruel the world can be!!

MRMJanuary 8th 2008.

Did you see the Hugh FW programme? The only woman who said she couldn't afford the free-range chicken was as fat as a pig but nobody pointed out that if she spent less money feeding her face on whatever was creating the mega bellies she could afford to eat free-range every day. Plus, her and her mates said they only ate the breast and chucked the rest away. Really hard-up then.Jennifer Eccles - go get some facts luv. Today we have a problem with obesity amongst the lower earners - hardly anyone is starving in this country anymore. The population was a lot healthier in your 1980's when chickens hadn't been messed with and it was still a treat.

Edge Hill EpicurusJanuary 8th 2008.

Time and time again the slack-jawed, hard-of thinking in this country choose to ape the Americans rather than the more civilised Europeans, opting to prefer fast food junk rather than slow food quality. The American idea of meat on the table every day is considered by them to be a good thing (even when it is pumped full of carcinogenic growth hormones, artificially manipulated genes, antibiotics, etc.) and in huge, cheap quantities, has led to the fattest and sickest nation on earth despite their wealth.Animal welfare apart, organic free-range stuff is better in every respect, but Bernard Matthews, big business and the powers-that-be had brainwashed us into thinking that battery farming is not only acceptable but natural, “traditional” and desirable; they then have the nerve to present the likes of true traditionalists such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver as dangerous new cranks, oddballs and sinister élitists!Follow the French. They drink more, smoke more and eat more fat yet they live longer than Britons or Americans. They eat proper food in a proper manner and not in enormous portions and have longer, better, more enjoyable lives as a result.

John FowlesJanuary 8th 2008.

Well said, MRM! Hugh should have told her to "F*** off, FATSO" and made a show of her. But was he too chicken?

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