Hi Ho Free Rangers
Gott Poultry, Morecambe, Lancashire, summer 2000:
I was told 80, 000 birds go through the factory every day. I saw some of those carcasses hanging up on a wire travelling to their eventual burial place in a plastic tray to be packed and shipped off to supermarkets across the land. I worked in the cooked meats section picking chicken wings. At lunch we were seperated from the staff of the non-cooked meats section by a glass wall in the canteen where the two sides stared at eachother seemingly with a cool hatred of one another. Derrick had showed me around, a man who had been there for 22 years since leaving school. It seemed like a life sentence to me in a place where they'd left their souls at the door. I only lasted a day...
I only lasted a day because I woke up late the next day and the agency I was with didn't send me back. I probably wouldn't have lasted long anyway, the stench was enough to turn your stomach, the cold of the chillers enough to sap your energy. It didn't put me off chicken though, I love chicken, it's probably my favourite type of meat and I love meat.
These days I work in a supermarket reducing meat that's going out of date and checking other meat soon to be going out of date. I see lots of chickens there, dead, wrapped up on the shelf ready to be bought and devoured. I still love chicken. It appears to me that most customers love it too and have always loved it, you don't need to work in a supermarket to know that- it is Britain's number one meat. We've been eating and loving it as a nation for centuries. Demand has increased so much that in order to meet supply we keep thousands of chickens couped up where they piss on eachother and have no life at all! The thing is, I've known about this for as long as I can remember as have most of the customers that have been buying chicken for as long as they can remember. Anybody who didn't know is either kidding themselves or burying their head in the sand like a chicken. I don't particularly care enough about the welfare of the birds to stop buying this type of "standard" chicken.
Enter Sir Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Up to this point-when four programmes went out on Channel 4 early January 2008, all of which I watched by the way- it seems the nation had no idea you could buy free range chicken(it's been available for years you know). It's undeniable that free range chickens live a better life. They run around in open fields and have a longer healthier existence- until we kill them to feed ourselves. I'm not advocating uneccessary cruelty to animals, I just don't feel strongly enough about it to get worked up. You see, at the end of the day the free rangers go to the same abattoir as the "standard", pissed all over themself chickens that taste so bad. Before free range chickens became so fashionable did anybody in your family tell you while they were eating that their food tasted foul. Of course not!
I believe the issue is a taste thing. It's got nothing to do with cruelty to the animals. I hold my hands up and say, unashamedly that I love to eat "standard" chicken knowing full well how they were treated in their lives. If I want to have my chicken and eat it then demand must meet supply, simple. I don't believe free range chicken is so much more amazing in taste that I'd pay the extra few quid a week to pay for the difference. For all these points I'd have become a vegetarian by now otherwise. I'd have stopped eating chicken and all other meat after my day in the chicken factory if I was really bothered. It comes down to some middle class idiots who have been sucked in by Oliver and Fearnley-Whittingstall. Going free range is not going to change the world, it's not a matter of life or death, for us.
It's a middle class fad(though I believe it's going to stick around for quite some time) propogated by a taste issue, not the treatment of the birds. It could be a clever marketing ploy by Oliver for Sainsbury's to make more money or maybe a financial boost for Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage business. That may be a cynical view but that's exactly what's happened in my supermarket, the middle classes have gone nuts for free range chicken. Unfortunately, for them, supply doesn't meet the demand. They don't seem to understand how this is possible! Surely the whole country has now gone free range and "standard" chickens can't be selling at all! Well, I have news for you all, "standard" chickens are selling just the same as ever. I neither reduce or throw them out any more or less than before the Oliver/Fearnley-Whittingstall campaign, contrary to the belief among the free range lobby.
Why am I writing this blog? Because I'm fed up of every day being shouted at, complained to about and having to explain about the supermarket buying policy for a minority of customers. It really is a mostly middle class minority that are up in arms while other middle class and working class customers alike continue to buy apparently SUB "standard" chickens and WE are obviously wrong. I don't like to attack any class system but even if I did care about the treatment of the chickens before they are put on my plate, I or my family couldn't afford to buy free range chicken. Meanwhile I have to listen to this handful of customers complaining they can't get their free range chickens and have never seen them in stock since those Oliver/Fearnley-Whittingstall programmes aired. They have been in stock every day but have been bought too quickly by others also caught up in this taste craze. You can't produce thousands of free range chickens overnight,and this is the point;it would only be thousands more- for the whole country- of Hi Ho Free Rangers wanting this to my mind. The other millions of us, working class and middle class, will go on eating our "standard" chickens without losing much sleep. I'd much rather worry about my family, friends and what's happening to other human beings in the world than the well being of our food.
Hi Ho Free Rangers, if you want to put your money where your mouth is- go totally free range. Put back your cheap sausages, stop buying cheap lamb chops and bacon rashers and give other animals the same thought you are giving to those poor chickens. Better still, become vegetarians and fuck off out of the meat aisle and leave me alone!