We’ve played chicken with food safety … and we’ve lost
The dirty business of chicken processing is in the spotlight, with a Guardian undercover abattoir investigation revealing dodgy practices. As supermarkets suspend sales from the factory involved and Labour promises a parliamentary inquiry, some members of the food industry are sighing at the media’s obsession with the subject of poultry hygiene. But the subject will keep coming up, however much business wishes it away, because industrial chicken is one of the defining commodities of our era. Its cheapness comes at a high price.
Meat production has quintupled in my lifetime, in large part thanks to the ubiquitous skinless factory chicken breast, and chicken accounts for around half of the meat we eat. At any one time there are more than twice as many chickens on Earth as humans – around 19 billion of them, bred to put on weight at turbocharged rates and mature in record time as uniform units of production that fit abattoir machinery. We have invented food Fordism – meat for the masses from the conveyor belt, no longer a luxury but an everyday ingredient. But, for all its apparent democratising possibilities, it is a commodity fraught with inescapable dilemmas.
Intensive livestock production is one of the most significant drivers of climate breakdown. It contributes nearly one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, rivalling the whole global transport sector. True, feedlot cattle leave a greater environmental footprint than poultry, but if you care about mitigating global warming, plant-based proteins are far better than intensively reared birds. Most of us in developed countries eat far more protein than we actually need for health, and most people could do more for the climate by cutting meat than giving up their car and plane journeys.
As the world’s population grows, the question of how we produce enough to feed everyone becomes ever more urgent. Intensively reared livestock is an inefficient way of meeting needs. Farm an acre of decent land and you can produce 20kg (45lb) of animal protein from it; give the same acre over to producing wheat and you’ll get 63kg of protein. If the grain that is currently used to feed animals were fed directly to people, there might be just enough food to go round when population peaks. If instead we continue to spread our industrial meat habit to poorer countries, we’ll need three planets to feed the world. The ethical argument is overwhelming: we need to get back to thinking of meat as a luxury, to be enjoyed occasionally, if not entirely forsworn.