Chicken is the UK’s favourite meat and that’s partly because it’s cheap. Per kilo it costs less than a pint of lager. But it looks unlikely that prices can stay that low. Why is the cost of chicken rising?
[Clip: chickens clucking]
Eating chicken used to be a luxury.
Now though, it’s nearly three times cheaper than it was in the 1960s. The average price per kilo is £3 – less than a pint of lager.
But it looks increasingly doubtful that prices can stay that low.
Brexit is one factor. Poultry producers, and the meat sector in general, have been struggling since Britain left the EU, because exports have become more difficult and the supply of foreign seasonal labour has been choked off.
It’s not just the grisly nature of the work but the fact that chicken farms are often located in parts of the UK with high employment – there just aren’t enough workers available locally.
Then there’s Ukraine.
“I’m afraid the one that I’m going to sound, I guess, rather apocalyptic about is food.”Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England
That’s Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, talking about the difficulty of exporting wheat from Ukraine and what that means for food prices.
It’s getting more expensive to feed farm animals, in part because of the impact the war is having on global wheat supply.
But it’s also because so many countries have curbed food exports to protect their home markets. India stopped exporting wheat after a heatwave scorched its harvest, and Malaysia stopped exporting chicken.
“A ban on exports of all chicken in Malaysia is threatening a dish central to the identity of its neighbour Singapore. Steamed rice, a side of greens and some poached chicken make chicken rice.”Reuters
All of this is hitting an industry that operates on the narrowest of margins. Data gathered for the Tortoise Better Food Index of Britain’s 30 biggest food companies shows just how slender they are. For meat companies in the Index, the average profit margin is 6.6 per cent compared with 11 per cent for non-meat companies. Two of the big poultry producers, 2 Sisters and Pilgrim’s Pride, had some of the lowest margins of all – both are below 1 per cent.
So can the rise in the price of chicken be controlled?
“Everybody’s been sold the cheap food policy. If it’s cheap for you to buy, is anybody further down the chain who makes it making any money?”Former pig farmer Simon Watchorn speaking to ITV News
In an interview with Tortoise, Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, said that while some farmers are on ‘cost trackers’ that allow them to pass on rising feed prices to buyers, others were less insulated from price shocks.
She suggested that some retailers would absorb costs, but if prices rise in the UK, it could lead to more chicken being imported, which means it could be produced to standards that she says would be illegal here.
One example of differing standards is on how densely chicken can be stocked. In many European countries poultry can be kept in more crowded conditions than in the UK.
The UK-Australia free trade agreement, signed in December 2021, is also a concern for poultry farmers. There are no bans on chickens being kept in battery cages in Australia, and this trade deal could open the door to other imports with low welfare standards.
“There’s nothing natural about your cheap chicken. While a few companies are proving it is possible to produce humane, affordable chicken, the overall industry still condemns billions of chickens to short miserable lives bred to their biological limits.”NYT Opinion
On the Tortoise podcast The Backstory, Justin King, former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, predicted chicken in the UK could become 20 to 30 per cent more expensive unless production practices changed.
But Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the industry body the British Poultry Council, told us the UK industry had “no appetite or desire” for lowering standards.
So is it time to rethink how much we rely on cheap chicken and look for other ways to get protein into our diet?
“Back when I was 16, get this, I used to have fried chicken three times a day. The juices are flowing from this thing like the River Thames.”Hezron Springer, BBC Stories
Cheap chicken is a product of intensive modern agriculture, a revolution powered by artificial fertilisers and antibiotics, which has given people unprecedented access to affordable protein.
But it has come at an environmental cost as pristine wilderness is converted into farmland to grow animal feed.
Here’s Brazilian ecologist Isabel Figueiredo, speaking to ITV News about the Cerrado, a vast area of savanna in Brazil that is being cleared for agriculture, mainly to produce soy for animal feed.
“For me it’s very sad to see amazing savanna with incredible biodiversity being converted into a massive landscape with only one species.”Ecologist Isabel Figueiredo speaking to ITV News
Closer to home, waste from chicken farms is polluting the River Wye, which flows from mid-Wales to the Severn Estuary. Campaigners say the resulting blooms of algae make the river water look like ‘pea soup’.
Just as the war in Ukraine is making Europe rethink where it gets its energy from, the world is beginning to wake up to the true cost of chicken.
At least one British retailer has suggested that chicken could become as expensive as beef: on current average prices, that would see the amount shoppers pay for a chicken doubling.
If the price of the country’s favourite meat rises rapidly, it might prompt another big shift in the way we eat. And an increase in price could help to draw our attention to the increasing costs of an over-stretched, industrialised agricultural system.
Today’s episode was written by Jeevan Vasager and Maddy Diment. It was mixed by Imy Harper.
Making sense of cheap chicken, with Giles Whittell
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