Comment: The Better Chicken Commitment is happening, now we have to see if anyone buys it

By Charles Bourns, broiler grower and chair of eggs & poultry working group, Copa-Cogeca

What a month it’s been. As some of you know I have been involved in the administration of the local badger cull area, our first year. As expected we attracted the attention of the anti-cull brigade as is usual in the first year especially. We have had drones flying overhead, farmers’ gates locked by the antis with padlocks – they keep the keys. We have had stand-offs in the fields, which the police have dealt with, so all in all it has been an exciting time. But we have reached all our targets.

The cull is paid for by the farmers in the area. They pay a one off payment that covers the four years of the cull. I know the RSPCA has written to farmers wanting to know if they are in a cull area. If the farmer is in an existing area, they can carry on; if in a new area they need to look at the alternatives (of which there are none if you want the cull to work).

This month, there has been a great deal of discussion about the Better Chicken Commitment and production. Well, a decision has been made, and some will be on the shelves in January. At present there are two schools of thought. One is RSPCA standards with a 30kg/m2 stocking density and no thin, the other is 30kg/m2 but thinned, both using a slower growing breed. The industry is not running headlong into the new product like I did in 2008 when a large number of farmers and breeding companies ended up catching a cold.

Now we will have to wait and see whether the customers will pay the extra. Up until now they have shown great reluctance; in fact they have been walking away from the product in the south west, and production of higher welfare chicken has fallen to about 20,000 a week.

The NFU has commissioned two independent reviews – one on cost, which shows a 19% increase for Better Chicken Commitment chicken, and secondly a report by vets on the perceived welfare benefits of lower stocked chicken, if any. The report concludes there is very little benefit, as stockmanship is key to good welfare. Although I would say that when I grew Freedom Foods chicken I found them very easy to look after with low mortality. I even had a case of wine from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for having a crop of chicken below 1% mortality.

Another point of concern is the increase in Salmonella enteriditis among all farms, possibly spreading from outdoor pig herds. It is very costly if you have it. We have increased our biosecurity and are on our guard at all times, especially checking where fitters and feed lorries have been before coming to us. We have been known to send a fitter’s vehicle to the local car wash, before allowing in on farm.

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