The surprising thing about the new chicken industry scandal is that anyone is surprised. In its quest to feed people as cheaply as possible, industrial farming has cut profit margins to the bone, providing plenty of motivation for cost-cutting measures, even those that risk lives.

The argument is that people need cheap food – and that’s an easy thought to agree with. People are poor, people are hungry – cheaper food must be better. But, in actual fact, people aren’t starving because they can’t afford food. They’re running our of money because housing costs have risen considerably, and are sucking up an ever-larger portion of our incomes. People are buying cheap food because they can’t afford the rent; their food costs are the only aspect of their budgets over which they have any control.

Once the scandal has died down, we will go back to “business as usual”, which means the true costs of cheap meat are brushed under the carpet. In no particular order:

  • Factory farmed chicken raises very young birds in inhumane conditions. They have to be debeaked to stop them attacking each other, and are pumped full of antibiotics to stop the filthy conditions making them ill.
  • Factory farming is one of the main causes in the rise of antibiotic resistance, which is a direct threat to human health.
  • The greenhouse gas emissions from factory farmed meat are contributing to climate change, which is a direct threat to the future of the human race. Factory farming also causes all kinds of other pollution issues.
  • Intensively-reared chicken is three times higher in fat, one third lower in protein, and lower in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids now than it was in the 1970s. The decreasing nutritional value of so-called ‘healthy’ foods is one of the causes of obesity and other forms of malnutrition.
  • The constant pressure to reduce prices means companies are on the look-out for ways to reduce their staffing costs, leading to low quality employment, falling incomes and increased pressure on people’s food bills….

The current scandal may encourage more people to become vegetarians, but probably not many. Perhaps more will become aware of the true costs of their food, and seek to eat less meat of better quality, with the environmental and health benefits that offers.

But cheap meat is a downward spiral, a trap from which it is hard to escape. The long term solution lies in looking at the bigger picture, and truly committing to lifting people out of poverty – by solving the housing crisis, reining in business practices that erode worker’s rights and incomes, and ensuring people have the money, time and skills to turn quality ingredients into healthy meals.

Silkie cockerel