Frankenchicken, farming and the cost of living crisis in 2023 

My phone chimes, and once again, it’s another link to hours of covertly recorded footage. This marks the third consecutive night that I find myself at my desk, a cup of coffee in hand, engrossed in the scrolling through the footage.

With a decade of experience as a rural affairs correspondent, I’ve grown accustomed to receiving surreptitiously captured videos from within farms. However, the sheer quantity of footage I’m receiving is unprecedented, and so is its content. In the past, the visuals would typically unveil illicit activities or animal mistreatment. But now, they showcase commonplace practices, entirely within the bounds of the law.

Each video paints a consistent narrative – packed poultry barns, grotesque deformities, and distressingly high mortality rates. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the time is ripe to unveil the story of how the United Kingdom has become home to millions of what some are calling “Franken Chickens.”

What are ‘Frankenchickens’?

The term “Frankenchicken” was coined by animal welfare advocates to describe genetically engineered, rapidly growing chicken breeds.

As per Kate Parkes, a poultry specialist at the RSPCA, the standard organic chicken reaches its slaughter weight in 81 days, while fast-growing breeds achieve this in just 35 days. The most commonly used fast-growing breed, according to Ms. Parkes, is the Ross 308.

The Eating Better Alliance, a coalition of organizations including the RSPCA, WWF, and Friends of the Earth, asserts that the UK raises a staggering 850 million chickens for meat annually. Of these, an overwhelming 95% are raised in intensive indoor facilities.

The Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) reports that England alone produces 90 million chickens per month. The demand for chicken strongly influences the structure of our supply chain.

The perception of what qualifies as “cheap” varies, but it’s undeniable that, depending on where you shop, the price of a chicken is approximately the same as a cup of takeaway coffee, making chicken a popular and affordable dietary staple for many households.

According to a report from the Eating Better Alliance, poultry surpassed red meat in sales for the first time in 2017, now accounting for over 50% of overall meat consumption.

‘We grow healthy chicken’

BBC Look North received permission to visit a poultry business in Yorkshire, often referred to as a “Frankenchicken” operation. Due to concerns about potential backlash from extremists, the farmer, who we’ll refer to as “Will” for anonymity, agreed to an interview under the condition that neither the name of his family-run farm nor its location would be disclosed.

While giving us a tour of his poultry sheds, Will, who himself used the term “Frankenchicken,” was clearly intent on presenting the perspective of farmers. “I only want my birds to be healthy and happy,” he emphasized. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, every single day of the year. I couldn’t work in an industry where I believed the animals I produced were suffering.”

Will shared that there were 37,000 chickens on his farm, all at 13 days old and weighing approximately half a kilogram. They would be slaughtered when they reached 35 days old and reached a weight of 2.2 kilograms.

Notably, none of the undercover footage seen by the BBC was recorded on Will’s farm. He acknowledged his awareness of the footage but felt it did not represent the entire industry. According to him, “the majority of farms are complying with all the regulations,” and he stressed that he was continually working to enhance welfare standards. “We are raising healthy chickens,” he affirmed.

When questioned about his choice to rear “Frankenchickens” rather than free-range birds, Will responded, “Consumer demand dictates what we raise in our sheds.” He indicated a willingness to transition to a free-range system if there was greater demand for it.

Will described the industry as being market-driven, with farmers following the standards set by the market. He noted that producers were “price-takers, not price-makers,” with supermarkets and processors determining the prices paid to farmers. He also believed that the demand for affordable chicken was influenced by the ongoing cost of living crisis.

Why are some people against ‘Frankenchickens’?

According to Ms. Parkes, these breeds are specifically chosen for their rapid growth, but this comes at a significant cost to the birds’ well-being. They often suffer from various health and welfare issues, including lameness and leg blistering. She goes on to describe this problem as “massive,” highlighting that these birds are susceptible to conditions like heart attacks due to their rapid growth. “They generally spend most of their time either sitting or eating,” she noted, emphasizing that their quality of life is quite limited.

Ms. Parkes acknowledged that most UK broiler chickens, those raised for meat, are provided with some form of enrichment, such as perches or objects to peck at. However, she stressed that they are bred in high stocking densities, preventing them from moving freely, flapping their wings, or exhibiting natural behaviors.

The concerns extend beyond the RSPCA. Renowned chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, speaking on Radio 4’s Today program, expressed his worries about “Frankenchickens” being bred solely for rapid weight gain to reach the market as swiftly as possible. He further underlined that people need to be aware that this is the standard existence for well over 90% of the chicken consumed.

TV naturalist Chris Packham condemned the practice as “cruel beyond belief,” and various campaign groups, including The Humane League UK and Open Cages, denounce the use of fast-growing breeds driven by consumer demand.

In August, Open Cages reported that it had secretly gathered footage at three farms in Lincolnshire, revealing chickens in poor health between August and November 2022. They claimed that the images and videos depicted deformed, injured, and unsanitary birds. One of the farms countered these claims, asserting that it maintained healthy, well-cared-for birds, had undergone independent welfare audits three times in the past 14 months, and complied with all legal standards.

Is growing Frankenchicken legal or Not?

Certainly. There is no indication that producers are in violation of the law. However, it’s worth noting that efforts have been made to address this practice.

In May, a legal challenge initiated by the animal charity, The Humane League, was dismissed in the High Court. Animal welfare advocates had contended that genetically selected breeds experienced severe health issues. The court examined allegations that the government had misinterpreted welfare regulations in permitting the breeding of these chickens and ruled in favor of dismissal.

In response, Defra issued a statement expressing its appreciation for the High Court’s decision and asserting that it demonstrated the government’s adherence to lawful policies and practices concerning the rearing of fast-growing meat chicken breeds. The statement further emphasized that all farm animals benefit from robust animal health and welfare legislation, with the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations of 2007 outlining precise requirements for the care of farmed livestock, including meat chickens.

He remarked, “We believe the court has made mistakes in its ruling, from overlooking the well-established scientific consensus regarding the significant suffering of fast-growing chicken breeds to implying that widespread illness among ‘Frank Chickens’ is permissible as long as a few individuals within a flock remain healthy. We contend that this interpretation does not align with the law. If this legal framework doesn’t extend to ‘Frankenchickens,’ who inherently endure suffering due to their genetic makeup, then its purpose becomes unclear.”

Defra stated that it refrains from commenting on ongoing legal proceedings.

In the meantime, certain restaurants and stores have committed to the Better Chicken Commitment, a pledge aimed at raising slower-growing birds and providing them with more spacious living conditions.

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