Playing Chicken – The Chicken Out Campaign

As a huge fan of British TV, and an openly honest stealer of television shows on the Internets, I was likely one of a small number of North Americans to view the series on Britain’s Channel 4 called Hugh’s Chicken Run in which food journalist and farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tries to get his entire town of Axminster to switch from intensively-farmed (and cheap) chicken to slightly more spendy free-range chicken.

In a three-part series, HFW sets up a chicken farm in which he raises half a barn of chickens as they would be in an intensive farming operation (no poultry operation would give him permission to film on their premises, so he was forced to create his own), and the other half as free-range, with more space, access to the outdoors, toys and activities, etc. He also trolls the aisles of his local supermarket to try and convince customers to purchase the free-range birds.

This is the point where Greg and I looked at each other and went “Waitaminute!!! Whaaaa???”

That you can get free-range chicken in UK supermarkets at all is a huge step up from here in Canada, where you’ll need to visit a speciality butcher to find free-range birds. They are available to restaurants, and can be found at some of the vendors at St. Lawrence Market here in Toronto, but at a chain like Price Chopper or Loblaw?? Not a chance.

In conjunction with the Chicken Run series, UK chef Jamie Oliver did a show called Jamie’s Fowl Dinners where he not only looked at chicken production, but egg production as well.

Both shows got a lot of flack for their use of shock tactics – Oliver gassed live male chicks, just as they would have on a regular chicken farm. Male birds are useless in an egg production facility, and the breed doesn’t make good meat, so males are disposed of as soon as they can be identified. HFW nearly broke down as he was forced to cull birds from his intensively-raised flock.

Throughout both shows, and in much of the criticism that has been levied in the past few weeks since the shows aired, the continued refrain seems to be that Britons can’t afford the more expensive free-range products. Cheap factory chickens go 2 for 5 pounds at most chain supermarkets, and lower income folks seem insistent that they can’t afford anything more. And more importantly, that they need these cheap chickens to feed their families.

Which was cause for my second “Waitaminute!!” moment while watching these shows. How about, people, if you just ate less meat??? I’m not saying stop eating meat, but seriously, do you really need two chickens a week? I’m not buying the protein excuse, either, because if people are truly on a budget, other sources of protein such as beans and legumes are far cheaper than chicken, even at 2fer.

So while I’m fully in support of the efforts made by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, maybe the real key to success is not just in teaching people how to make their free-range bird go further via dishes like soup, risotto and stock, but in showing them the alternatives. Britons eat an exceptional amount of chicken per capita, mostly because it’s cheap. If these chefs spent an equal amount of time showing people how to meet their daily nutritional requirements via other, cheaper, means, perhaps it would be easier for those folks to occasionally justify the cost of a more expensive free-range bird.

For more information on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Out campaign, check out the website.