OPINION: Meat for your Sunday roast needs to cost more than chickenfeed

Chicken

Andy Newman suggests a chicken selling for less than three first class stamps isn't good for anyone in the meat production industry - Credit: Archant

There was consternation over the weekend when the chief executive of one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets warned that chicken could soon become as expensive as beef.

This is certainly another blow to hard-pressed consumers struggling to put food on the table, but is it actually such a bad thing?

We have become too used to chicken being ridiculously cheap. This week Tesco has been price-matching Aldi for whole chickens, offering them at £2.89. That is less than the cost of posting three first class letters, or just a few pence more than I was charged for a half pint of beer in a pub on Sunday.

How on earth does anyone think that farmers can produce birds for that kind of money, especially bearing in mind that the supermarket, wholesaler, distributor and transporter will all have taken their cut of that meagre price before the producer gets their share?

The question should not be why chicken is becoming more expensive, but how we have got into a situation where it has been so undervalued for so long.

Most people give lip-service to demanding better animal welfare, professing to want to see an end to intensive farming practices.

Most of us want to see farmers getting a fair price for what they produce, given that they are the guardians of the countryside we all take for granted. But these things don’t come cheap, and if we genuinely want to see improvements in the way animals are raised to provide our dinner, we have to be prepared to pay for it.

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Of course, farming is seeing the same kind of soaring costs that we all are. Poultry producers have huge energy bills, and the ingredients of chicken feed include soya, sunflower meal (a by-product of sunflower oil) and wheat. Where do we get a huge proportion of those things from? Russian and Ukraine.

None of the pressures on the cost of raising chicken – or any other kind of meat for that matter – are going to be eased any time soon. We are going to have to get used to paying a fair price, in other words, one which reflects the true cost of production, which allows producers to raise animals in compassionate conditions, and which gives farmers a reasonable return.

That will mean an end to the sub three-quid chicken, and that is no bad thing. I recognise that for the many people finding it ever-harder to put food on the table that sounds harsh, but for all of us, whatever our income, we need to be re-thinking our relationship with what we eat.

That means that instead of ingredients like chicken being regarded as cheap-as-chips everyday ingredients, we need to start thinking of meat as something we eat less often, and for which we need to be prepared to pay a bit more.

Personally, I refuse to buy the kind of bottom-end, mechanically-recovered, intensively-farmed meat which can only be available at the price it is through massive compromises in quality and animal welfare.

That means that, much as I love to eat meat, I am doing so less frequently. It means that when I do indulge my inner carnivore, it is a treat and I can tuck in knowing I am not cheating anyone in the supply chain which put the food on my plate.

There is no doubt that rising food prices are casting a shadow over many households. But one silver lining to that particular cloud is that we are all having to think about how much food we waste.

Once upon a time a chicken wasn’t something which provided one meal, with the remains thrown away before Sunday was out. With a bit of effort, a decent chicken can provide the Sunday roast, a pasta or risotto dish for Monday evening, and enough stock from the carcass and the giblets to make a decent pot of soup for the week.

When you think like that, a chicken represents tremendous value, even if the price is creeping inexorably upwards. The truth is that we can do nothing about food inflation itself, but we can re-think how we buy and cook food, and above all ensure we get the full value out of what we do buy.