Special Report Supermarkets: Chicken

| 1st September 2004
Wander down the meat aisle of any supermarket and you will find mountains of chicken being sold at unbelievably cheap prices. The real reasons for this cannot be found on the label.

It was the scald tank that got me in the end. I had expected trouble in the slaughter room, but we’d moved through there without incident. We’d already passed the electrocution bath, and I’d slipped easily enough round the neck cutters slicing through carotid arteries. There wasn’t as much blood as I’d feared.

I had been smuggled into a large chicken factory by a meat-hygiene inspector who was worried about standards in the poultry industry. We were gazing into a hot-water tank into which the dead birds were being dipped at the rate of 180 a minute, to scald the skin and loosen the feathers before they went into the plucking machine.

It was 3pm and, as at many factories, the water was only changed once a day. It was a brown soup of faeces and feather fragments, and, the hygiene inspector pointed out, at 52 degrees centigrade, ‘the perfect temperature for salmonella and campylobacter organisms to survive and cross-contaminate the birds’. We moved on to the whirring rubber fingers that remove the feathers. ‘Plucking machines exert considerable pressure on the carcass, which tends to squeeze faecal matter out onto the production line. It only takes one bird colonised with campylobacter to infect the rest. The bacteria count goes up 10-fold after this point,’ he continued. I found myself wondering who had done the counting.

We went outside. There, birds in towering stacks of crates delivered earlier in the day by a procession of juggernauts were being given a chance to calm down before being shunted into the slaughter room. They need to settle for the men to be able to pick them up by their feet and hang them upside down on the moving belt on which they begin their journey through the factory process. The crates are made of plastic mesh with holes.

The birds, which have typically been kept indoors all their lives – in 23-hour-a-day low light for maximum productivity, tend to panic when they are taken into the fresh air and daylight for the first time. As they open their bowels, the faeces falls from the crates at the top down through the tower on to those below. ‘Pretty daft, isn’t it?’ the inspector said. The vast majority of the 820 million UK chickens we eat each year are now processed in huge factories like these, which combine an abattoir with cutting, packing and labelling the meat before it is transported directly to supermarket distribution centres.

More than half the UK’s chicken farms are directly contracted to the factories, too, rearing chicks delivered to them from the factory hatcheries, although British poultry farmers are increasingly struggling to stay in business in the face of cheap imports, particularly from Thailand and Brazil. In the late 1980s chicken farmers received slightly more than 30 per cent of the retail price of chicken, but today they are lucky to get 20 per cent. British chicken processors, whose factories require substantial capital investment and have high labour costs, are often working on margins of less than 1 per cent. If they cannot deliver the price the supermarket wants, retailers can use the stick of sourcing abroad – either from Europe, where the high value of the pound to the euro favours continental farmers, or from developing countries, where costs are lower and standards may not be so good. It is only by keeping volumes high that conventional farmers and processors here can survive.


Two thirds of chicken farms in the UK now consist of units of 100,000 birds or more. But that makes them dependent on the people squeezing their margins in the first place – the supermarkets. They are the only customers who buy in sufficient volume. The story is not unique to chicken. Pig farmers and processors suffer similar problems. Ten years ago a British pig farmer made £9 profit per pig; in 2002 he lost an average of £3 per pig. Neither poultry nor pig farming receive subsidies. Only the biggest and most intense producers can compete. This is one of the consequences of our obsession with cheap meat. The constant drive to increase yields leads to ever-greater intensification. As the trade has globalised, the same trend is now being seen in developing countries. Small poultry farmers in Brazil and Thailand are being squeezed out by huge factory farms. It is a pattern that can be observed in most food sectors, from vegetable farming to confectionery manufacture. But where livestock is involved, the almost irresistible drive towards industrialisation has particular consequences. Factory farming in these sorts of conditions is heavily dependent on the use of drugs to prevent or treat disease. Pigs, chickens, laying hens, sheep, calves, dairy cows and farmed fish all receive routine dosages of antibiotics either through injection or in their food and water.

By the end of the 1990s about 450 tonnes of antibiotics were being used on farm animals in the UK each year – about the same quantity as on humans. Many of the antibiotics given to farm animals are the same as, or related to, antibiotics used in human medicine. And yet, in 1997 the EU banned an antibiotic called avoparcin for use in animals because of the likely development of resistance in humans to the related antibiotic vancomycin. But the legacy of using avoparcin in factory farming remains. Because the drug was given in low dosages to chickens in feed or drinking water, it didn’t kill bacteria completely but allowed some to survive and develop resistance. Now we are facing untreatable vancomycin-resistant superbugs in humans. Vancomycin is the most powerful human antibiotic available, the last line of defence for patients with the hospital superbug MRSA. In 1998 the UK poultry industry said it would remove all growth-promoting antibiotics from feed voluntarily, ahead of a European ban that comes into force in 2006. But by 2003 it had become clear that one in five producers had quietly slipped back into old habits. Many producers had found that their birds were falling ill without the growth promoters, and resumed administering them. Others had switched to far greater use of therapeutic antibiotics prescribed by vets. I have seen production sheets from a large chicken factory, sent to me anonymously, which make clear that its chicks, both free-range and indoor-reared, are still routinely given antibiotics in their water.

In February 2003 avian flu broke out in the eastern Dutch province of Gelderland. The Dutch government enforced a ban on the movement of farmed birds in a desperate effort to stop the disease spreading through the country’s intensive poultry units. By April the disease had spread to Belgium. Exports of eggs and chickens were banned. By the time the Germans had caught it in May 2003, and started sealing their roads, more than 30 million Dutch and Belgian chickens had been destroyed. A Dutch vet had also died, having caught the disease from an infected bird, briefly sparking fears that the virus could mutate and trigger a flu epidemic in humans. The UK poultry industry escaped the European epidemic of avian flu in 2003, but it was back on red alert in January 2004 as the disease struck again – this time cutting through flocks in southeast Asia and claiming lives as it spread to the human population. The World Health Organisation warned that if the bird virus mutated and attached itself to human flu, the consequences would be devastating. Imports of meat from Thailand were banned by the EU when it emerged that the Thai government had been covering up the fact that the country’s flocks were infected. The strain of flu was particularly virulent, and The Lancet said that if it became contagious among people the prospect of a global pandemic was ‘massively frightening’. But despite these increasingly frequent food scares, just wander down the meat aisles of any supermarket and you will find mountains of chicken being sold at unbelievable prices.

Chicken breasts: buy one, get one free... Chicken thighs: three for the price of two... Whole birds: half price. Chicken is cheaper than it was 20 years ago, and we’re buying five times more of it, spending £2.5 billion a year. Chicken has become one of the weapons in supermarkets’ price wars, but being able to buy a whole chicken for not much more than the price of a cup of coffee comes at a cost. Chickens, like other animals, have become industrialised and globalised. We no longer know where they are produced or how they are processed. By the time we buy them in aseptic little packages, or processed into convenience meals, we have lost any sense of their origin.

Extracted from Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence published by Penguin. Copyright © Felicity Lawrence 2004. www.penguin.co.uk

45 days in the life of a broiler chicken

The modern broiler chicken has been bred to fatten in the shortest time possible. (The word ‘broiler’ derives from a combination of the two traditional methods of cooking chicken: boiling and roasting.) The broiler farms divide the year up into a series of eight-week cropping periods. Each ‘crop’ of chickens takes 40 to 42 days to grow from chick to two-kilogram bird ready for slaughter. One week is taken to clean and disinfect the sheds before the next crop is begun. The units are not cleaned during cropping. So, after two to three weeks the wood shavings on the floor of the sheds are completely covered with poultry manure, and the air is acrid with ammonia.

Everything is automated. Computers control not just the heating and ventilating systems, but also the dispensing of feed and water, which are medicated with drugs to control parasites, or with mass doses of antibiotics as necessary. Sheds these days typically hold 30,000 to 50,000 birds. Space and heating cost money, so the more birds you can pack in, the greater the yield.

The UK government guidelines currently advise that there should be a maximum stocking density of 34 kilograms of bird per square metre of floor space. In fact, a survey conducted by Compassion in World Farming in 2001 found that only Marks and Spencer stipulated this as a maximum. Most other supermarkets permitted stocking densities of up to 38 kilograms per square metre; that allows each mature chicken an area smaller than an A4 sheet of paper. By the time the birds reach the end of their lives, the sheds are so crammed they can hardly move.

Animal welfare groups have regularly video-recorded signs of acute stress in birds, including feather-pecking and cannibalism of dead chickens. Mortality rates are high – at 1 per cent a week, seven times higher than in egg-laying hens. Once the shed is carpeted with chickens, it can be hard for the stockman to see all those that have died before the others start feeding on them. Two companies – Ross Breeders and Cobb – supply 80 per cent of the breeding stock for commercial broilers around the world. Much research has been devoted to genetic selection to produce the most efficient bird.

The RSPCA, which says that it sees the suffering of broiler chickens as one of the most pressing animal welfare issues in the UK today, took the photographs above comparing the growth rate of a normal chicken with that of a broiler. In 1957 the average growth period for an eating chicken was 63 days, and just less than three kilograms of feed was required for each kilo of weight. By the 1990s the number of growth days had been reduced to 42 to 43, and little more than one and a half kilograms of feed was required. The industry is working to reduce the lifespan still further. By 2007 birds are expected to reach the required two-kilogram weight in 33 days. But genetic selection to produce birds that work like factory units of production creates serious health problems. Death from heart attacks or swollen hearts that cannot supply enough oxygen to the birds’ oversized breast muscles are common. A study in 1992 by the University of Bristol found detectable problems in 90 per cent of UK broilers, and that more than a quarter of birds had leg problems severe enough to affect their welfare. The industry has done its own survey and says that less than 4 per cent of birds have significant problems. It has not made its research available in the public domain, however. And for those broilers that are kept for breeding, and are therefore not slaughtered at six weeks, but allowed to reach sexual maturity at about 15 to 18 weeks; they have to be starved, otherwise they would become too big to mate. "A Dutch additive supplier and a German protein manufacturer were caught on video boasting that they had developed undetectable methods of adulterating chicken with waste from cows"

The Netherlands is the centre of the ‘tumbling’ industry, the process in which the bulking up of chicken takes place. Dutch processors import cheap frozen chicken from Thailand and Brazil. The meat has often been salted, because salted meat attracts only a fraction of the EU tariff applied to fresh meat. The processors defrost the meat, and then use dozens of needles to inject into it a solution of additives, or tumble it in giant cement-mixer-like machines, until the water added to bulk the chicken out has been absorbed. The tumbling helps dilute the salt to make the chicken palatable. So, as well as avoiding substantial taxes, the processors can make huge profits by selling water. Once the chicken has been tumbled and/or injected, it is refrozen and shipped on for further processing by manufacturers or for use by caterers. The story gets even less appetising, as I discovered when I met John Sandford, unsung local authority hero and leading trading standards officer at Hull City Council. His investigations began in 1997, when trading standards officers were contacted by a restaurateur who couldn’t get his chicken, bought from a wholesaler, to cook properly. It fell to the council to test the meat, and they found it contained 30 per cent added water. Sandford began puzzling over how the processor had managed to get so much water to stay in the chicken.

Why didn’t the water just flood out when it was turned into a takeaway or a ready meal or a chicken nugget? The chicken was from Holland. Some time later Sandford discovered that there was gossip among UK producers that some Dutch companies had found new methods of adulterating their meat. Now the authorities had to prove it. Sandford knew it would be a slog. ‘When they realise you are on their trail, they just change their specification to disguise what they are doing in different ways. They are multi-million-pound companies with limitless money to spend on technology.’ Sandford has a budget of £20,000 a year to spend on laboratory tests.

The breakthrough came when the laboratory Sandford uses in Manchester was able to develop new DNA testing that could pinpoint protein from different species of animals. The first DNA tests on further samples of Dutch catering chicken – well-known brands that are used widely in takeaways, pubs, clubs, Indian, Chinese and other ethnic restaurants across the country – showed up lots of water and, astonishingly, pork. Some of the samples of what were being sold as chicken breasts were in fact only 54 per cent chicken. Nearly half of the samples contained less meat than they claimed and were mislabelled. Most had originated in Thailand and Brazil. And instead of using the old trick of phosphates to hold the water in, the processors were using a new, little understood method involving hydrolysed proteins. Hydrolysed proteins are proteins extracted at high temperatures or by chemical hydrolysis from old animals or parts of animals that are not use for food, such as skin, hide, bone, ligaments and feathers. Rather like cosmetic collagen implants, they make the flesh swell up and retain liquid.

Shortly afterwards some documents came into my hands that suggested there was considerably more going on behind the scenes. These documents showed that, together with the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the Manchester lab had been looking for not just chicken adulterated with pork, but also chicken adulterated with beef waste. The possibility of BSE in chicken meat raised its ugly head. If the Dutch processors were injecting chicken with hydrolysed proteins extracted from cow material, as these documents suggested, which bit of the cow was that material coming from? And would the process of hydrolysis kill off any infective BSE prions? The baton passed to Ireland where the food safety inspectors in Dublin, tipped off by their English colleagues, had started their own tests on chicken. Using a private lab with different and more sensitive DNA testing techniques, they found what they had been looking for: undeclared bovine proteins in chicken breasts from Holland, and lots more pork in chicken labelled ‘halal’. Since much of the chicken was destined for ethnic restaurants where pork would be abhorrent to Muslims and beef to Hindus, it presented considerable moral dilemmas.

The BBC’s Panorama team was keen to take the investigation further and it made sense to join forces with it. I had traced the production of hydrolysed proteins back to factories in Germany and Spain. Panorama began secret filming. Its evidence was shocking. Panorama caught a Dutch additive supplier and a German protein manufacturer on video boasting that they had developed undetectable methods of adulterating chicken with waste from cows. The cow proteins were mixed into additive powders, which were then injected into the meat, mostly chicken breasts, by poultry processors, so that it could take up as much as 50 per cent water. But they were able to break down the DNA of the cow proteins to such an extent that the authorities’ tests would not find it. Proteins extracted from chicken waste could also be used, but the reason for choosing cows was that the raw material was even cheaper. The owner of the Dutch company that mixed the proteins into powders for the chicken processors to use told the undercover reporters that for more than 10 years the industry had been extracting hydrolysed beef proteins to inject not only into chicken but also into other meats such as ham.

At least 12 companies in Holland were using the new undetectable hydrolysed proteins. At first the FSA maintained the line that it was a labelling issue, but then decided it was a major scandal and fraud. It is now pressing the European Commission to ban the use of proteins from other species in chicken, and to limit the amount of water that may legally be added to bird carcasses to 15 per cent. The industry says some added water is vital for technical reasons, to prevent the chicken from drying out. Despite a pioneering investigation by its own scientific experts, the FSA was hamstrung by the fact that in European law there was nothing illegal about what the Dutch were doing so long as they put it on an obscure label somewhere. A multi-million-pound hi-tech industry had been, and still is, able to import cheap frozen Thai and Brazilian chicken, doctor it with animal waste, and sell it to restaurants, institutions and manufacturers across Britain. It has run rings around the authorities for years. Eventually, no doubt, new regulations will grind their way through Brussels putting a limit on the amount of water you can add to chicken, and banning the use of foreign proteins; though how they will be enforced when processors already know how to beat the tests is not clear.

Who knows how far the technology has spread? I have seen sales literature from additive companies offering protein mixes for all kinds of meats and for fish. It is worth remembering, meanwhile, that the good guys are those who only add, and presumably will continue to add, 15 per cent water to your chicken. Chicken Nuggets Mechanically-recovered meat is obtained by pushing chicken carcasses through a giant teabag-like screen to produce a slurry of protein. This is then bound back together with polyphosphates and gums. To this slurry are often added large quantities of water, soya proteins to restore the texture of meat, emulsifying gums to stop the mix separating out again, and flavourings and sugars to make up for the lack of meat.

Traditional Farming Makes Sense

For centuries traditional farms were mixed, partly to take advantage of the virtuous circle of plants feeding animals whose manure could then feed crops, but also as an insurance against the risk of disease. Farm diseases are usually quite specific, and attack one type of livestock or crop. The best way to prevent them is to avoid keeping too many of the same animals together in one place, and to rotate them so that the cycle of diseases and parasites is broken. Organic farmers know this. Once a disease does strike, just as isolation works with human illness, keeping animals away from contact with other animals of their type is the best way of controlling it. Modern systems of monoculture do the opposite. Meat and livestock are not only regularly transported around the world; they are also kept together in great crowds in the same place year after year. By the time a disease has been noticed, it has often taken devastating grip.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004

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