Friday, 2 January 2009

The £7.42 Chicken Challenge: Part I

I think one of the worst things about the food culture in Britain is cheap meat. Traditionally, meat has been a treat. It is meant to be more expensive than other ingredients.

When you look at how meat is produced, it's obvious why meat is expensive. To grow some vegetables, fruits, grains or pulses, I can sow some seeds, and then just leave them until harvest time. Rain will water them and birds and insects will help fertilize the plants and eat pests. A totally natural approach probably isn't the most reliable, so I might invest a bit of time and money in putting down compost or soil nutrients, or weeding the field. I might also water the fields, or use pesticides to maintain my crop. By ultimately, I can pretty much leave the plants to their own devices and they will produce food for me.

If I want to get some chicken, beef, pork or lamb, then it is much more complicated. I have find a shelter for the animals at night, and protect them from predators. They might need a lot of land to roam on, with special plants growing on it, or special areas like dirt baths or muddy patches. I have to ensure the animals are fed everyday, and look after their health. I also have to make sure they breed, so I'll have some animals to farm next year. Animals take up a lot of time and effort, and eat the plant crops that I could be eating. Therefore, the yield of meat from animals will be more expensive than plant based food.

In the supermarket the other day, I had a choice of three chickens. One was organic, free range and expensive. For a 1.8kg bird, the price was over £11. There was a value chicken, that at for 1.8kg, only cost £3.40. There was also a free range chicken, that was corn fed, for £7.42. I went for the free range one. I would have paid around £7 just for 2 free range breasts, so paying an extra 42p for the legs, wings and carcass was a good deal.

While I am not totally convinced by the benefits of organic produce, I am convinced by free range. I don't think animals have rights per se, and I would never become vegetarian for ethical reasons. However, I do think animals should be looked after, and not made to suffer just because we are top of the food chain. A quick look around small holder websites reveals that you can't really even feed a chicken for £3.40, let alone look after it properly. Commercial farmers will buy in bulk and have lower costs, but still, it does not bode well. If an animal is going to die so I can eat it, I want it to have had a decent life, with good quality food, outside access, and enough time to mature properly and not killed as soon as they are heavy enough to go to the supermarket.

I know to some extent that you can't be sure about what you are eating unless you have farmed it yourself, and I would prefer to buy all my meat from the farmer's market, where you can talk to the people that raised the animals about the conditions in which they were kept. One of the few good things going for Britain in terms of mass market food is that we do have stricter farming regulations than most of Europe, so a cheap British pork chop is better than a cheap European one, but I still think most forms of intensive farming should be banned, and people should be forced to accept that meat is not cheap.

So now I have my mid-price happy chicken, I need to make sure I get the most out of it. First off, a roast dinner!

We ate most of a breast and a leg with the roast dinner, and shredded the rest of the meat for use later in the week. I also saved most of the fat, skin and all the bones to make stock with.