Helena Maxwell-Jackson weighs the pros and cons of fried chicken, where it comes from, and if it is affordable to be ethical
Chicken is the UK’s favorite meat. Yet, all too often, we do not give these birds the respect that they deserve. We cram these egg-layers into tiny cages, then kill them, crumb them and stuff them into buckets as fried chicken.
Some of us may have childhood memories that involve visiting the countryside and seeing hens strutting around small-holdings, their red combs bobbing. We might also remember how, as teenagers, we sat shivering in city centre parks with cans of cheap beer; how we picked at hot, greasy, and suspiciously sweet pieces of breaded chicken.
Something that I always find strange is that I, while feeling nostalgic about the latter, always try to cast the former from my mind. Nobody wants to think that the creature that they stroked at the petting zoo will one day, in the future, be the same deep fried chicken at Chicken Cottage.
I remember staying at my friend’s new home in the Suffolk countryside. I met her chickens and was taught how to pick one up, although it flapped its wings when I tried. All her hens had endearing names liked Fluffy, Feathers, and Pebbles. In the morning, we ate the most delicious, nut-brown eggs which had been collected from their coop. The yolks were a deep ochre, and I had never tasted eggs like that before.
Despite caring deeply about her hens, my friend was not a vegetarian. Her mother was a fantastic cook and I was lucky enough to enjoy her signature roast chicken where I found that all the ingredients were conscientiously prepared and lovingly cooked.
My friend’s family understood their chickens. They knew that they all had distinct personalities, and they wanted to treat them well. However, they also recognised that these were farmyard animals; they had been reared to provide food. They weren’t pets but livestock who still deserved some respect.
For me, respecting the animals we consume is crucial. Yet this approach is often lacking. The organisation Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) states that in broiler sheds there is often no natural light, insufficient ventilation and overcrowding. Stressed and often injured, millions of chickens suffer from heart failure annually in the UK alone. Those who do live long enough to be taken to slaughter, often die before they arrive at the abattoir due to unacceptable, yet somehow legally permissible, transportation methods.
Despite the cruelty that can exist in animal agriculture, I am not one to vilify farmers, many of whom have a great regard for the environment and the creatures they work with. However, the way that chickens are often treated in intensive farming is inexcusable, and enough to make anybody think twice about consuming meat.
Chickens should be treated with dignity. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should abstain from eating them. Organic and free range meat may well be the answer. CIWF claims that standard free range chickens have continual access to outside space, allowing them to express their intrinsic behavior. Free range and organic meat is pricey, but perhaps it more truthfully reflects the value of the life that we have taken.
Between 1900 and 1973 we had lost 26 native breeds of farm animal. According to the Rare Breed Survival Trust, 39 breeds of chicken are at risk of being lost for good. The organisation Slow Food suggests that one way to save these animals from extinction is to buy their meat—supporting the farmers who breed them. By eating the meat of rarer breeds, we can make the keeping of them financially viable!
Of course, living in Greater Manchester, it is difficult to know where one could even buy these organic and heritage breeds. Even if we do know, a student loan can only cover so much, buying expensive meats can seem so incredibly thriftless. In a city where so many people struggle to eat at all, eschewing meat that is not up to one’s particular moral stance can seem rather sanctimonious, too.
Perhaps then, we should eat chicken only on occasion, taking the time to cook the best quality meat we can afford. Or maybe, we should not eat chicken at all and just admire them as the beautiful and inquisitive animals that they are. And perhaps we should research the egg industry, because from what I’ve heard, it is not all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns either.
We can only do what we can do. And to say the least, we can take the time to think about what kind of chicken farming we really feel comfortable supporting—if there is any.