Monday, 17 September 2012

Legs or breasts?

As someone who doesn't eat much meat (although I'm not a vegetarian), I'm intrigued by some of the issues posed by the farming and meat industries. Things like: if most chicken products are made with chicken breast, what happens to the rest of the meat?

The answer came to me on a recent television programme about cheap food and animal welfare. Some of the chicken thighs and legs make it onto our dinner tables, or in the summer months, onto our barbecues. Some of the other meat from the chicken goes into chicken mince and chicken burgers. But most of it doesn't.

Meanwhile, over in the Far East, cheaper cuts of meat are standard fare in some countries. For example, when I was in Japan a few years ago, I noticed that restaurants had chicken gizzards, cock's combs and chicken skin on the menu. One restaurant had chicken escalopes, but they were made from chicken skin with a thin layer of meat attached. There were no chicken breast products. If you consider that Japan is one of the more wealthy Far Eastern countries, you can see that their choice of chicken meat is a matter of tradition rather than price.

I should tell you that it's not the same in every country; for example, I've had fantastic street food in Malaysia that was made with chicken breast. Things are certainly different between countries.

But I was surprised to learn that we eat so many chicken breasts in Europe that we can't supply them from our own farms. Guess what happens?

Yes, we take the breast from our chicken, and sometimes the thighs and legs. Then we send the rest of the meat and skin off to the Far East. In exchange, they send us the breast meat from their chickens.

Bits of chicken are travelling back and forth all over the world, right now. There is a global trade in chicken parts.

But cheap chicken breast on the dinner table, or in our sandwiches, comes at a cost. The big problem is that animal welfare standards in some Far East countries are far worse than the minimum legal standard in Europe. Apparently, Thailand have been criticised for this, and they are a major exporter of chicken products to the UK. But you won't find this fact mentioned prominently on the packaging.

It can help to check where your chicken comes from; as I mentioned, meat that comes from somewhere in Europe has come from farms that maintain minimum standards of animal welfare. Although some intensive farms are still pretty poor, they could be a lot worse.

The other thing to check is how the chicken was reared. If you buy a Freedom Food chicken, for example, then the chicken is raised to the RSPCA's minimum standards. It may still be intensively farmed (and less than ideal in my opinion), but it gives a balance between animal welfare and the price tag. But if you can afford it (which isn't always possible, I know) then free range or organic chicken is better.

The only problem is that the "higher welfare" products aren't often available as convenience foods. You'll struggle to find free-range chicken burgers in the supermarket, or even organic chicken breast in most local butchers shops. You might have to buy and cook a whole chicken, but this can end up cheaper in the long run if you split up the cuts of meat and freeze them for later use. Not sure how to do that? Google.

I was brought up next door to a mixed dairy and arable farm that diversified into other livestock. I know that things have changed in the farming industry over the years. Not all of the changes have been for the better, in my opinion, and some farmers have been forced to do what they have to, to feed their own families. But the ultimate power to change this is with the consumer.

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