We eat a lot of chicken in this country. 95% of us have it at least twice a week. That’s nearly 900 million chickens bred and slaughtered, another 400 million imported (mostly from the EU) and a grand total of 6.3 billion portions served in British homes and restaurants every year. Between April and July 2017 nearly half of the population ate a take-away chicken meal and in 2011 Chicken Tikka Masala was famously judged to be the nation’s favourite dish.
We’re clucking mad for it and while that is unlikely to change any time soon Brexit will affect chicken consumption as surely as it will affect anything else.
An awful lot of energy has gone into talking up the benefits Brexit will visit on our fishing industry but you won’t see Mr Farage near a poultry abattoir any time soon. And there’s a reason for that. Chickens aren’t sexy and slaughtering them even less so. As an island nation, the mythos of the noble weather-beaten fisherman in his yellow mac, steering his trawler into brooding seas to bring a little fishy, for a little dishy looms large. Nobody ever made a children’s book about the brutal process of bringing a drumstick to your plate. The mass rearing and mass slaughter of poultry lacks the essential romance of man pitched against herring.
Chicken farming is big business and an important contributor to the UK economy. Poultry supports £3.3bn of Gross Value to the UK economy (GVA) while fishing adds just £1.4bn. The industry employs 35,000 compared to the 12,000 who work dredging the sea.
The poultry industry already struggling with tight margins to meet the demand for cheap and available meat is dreading the coming of Brexit and lobbying hard against. The situation is compounded because many employees are EU nationals and that means disaster if they all go home. 60% of the entire industry’s workforce comes from the EU and in some cases 90% of workers in factories are from Europe.
“It’s a brutal and hard job,” one former owner tells me “and British people simply won’t do it. All of our workers come from Poland or other EU countries and a lot of them will just go elsewhere.”
With the government suggesting that only high skilled workers will be welcome post-Brexit the poultry industry is facing a very uncertain future indeed. Rearing chickens, killing chickens, plucking chickens, gutting chickens, chopping chickens up and packaging them is not ‘skilled labour.’ Once the migrant workers have gone it is very unlikely indeed that British workers will step up to take their place. Brexit could make even basic chicken prodcuts harder to get – and considerably more expensive.
But if you’re worried that your KFC is going to suddenly cost a lot more then don’t panic just yet – because help (of sorts) is on its way. The poultry farmers of America are coming. Or rather – they’d like to. US farmers have long objected to all that horrid EU legislation because it means they are unable to export their birds into the large and hungry European market. You see, in order to export into the single market you have to abide by the laws of the single market – and those laws are tough.
You up for some chicken regulations? Well good – strap yourselves in and let’s go.
EU council directive 2007/43/CE sets out the minimum conditions for raising broilers. Barns used for raising chickens must have adequate light, food, water, ventilation and space. Workers have to have adequate training and a certificate attesting they have attended an approved training course. Holding areas must be thoroughly inspected twice a day. Barns must have hard floors with adequate clean bedding and have to be thoroughly cleaned, sterilised and inspected on a regular basis. There are rules on handling chickens. Rules on what they can eat. Rules on what you can do before during and after a batch has been raised. Stocking density must not exceed 33kg/mg ……. etc. etc. etc…….. boring isn’t it. A lot of EU legislation is. That’s kind of the point. The EU is brilliant at the dull end of things – that’s why Boris Johnson made up all that guff about bananas up.
Like I said – chicken production is not sexy. There are no boats. No stiff breezes. No salty seamen.
But that dull old Directive 2007/43/CE ensures that the meat which reaches your plate has been reared to standards higher than anywhere on Earth – that the animals in their brief lives have been shown some dignity (and yes it could be better) and that you and your family are unlikely to die or be hospitalised as a result of contaminated meat.
In the US by contrast there are no animal welfare laws surrounding the rearing of poultry. Yes. That’s right. None. Zero. Farmers can shove as many birds as they like into the sheds and provide as little light and ventilation as they deem necessary. Chickens in the US live their short existence shitting and pecking in confined spaces on earth floors, packed as tightly as is feasible and when they are carted off for the chop there’s no incentive or law insisting that the crap is cleaned up properly. New straw is put down over the shit and dirt and the process renews. It’s filthhy, it’s unhygienic and it’s a breeding ground for bacteria and disease.
Rather than bothering with all that pesky animal welfare stuff the Americans pack em high and then to ensure that the customers don’t all die, they sterilise the meat by washing the dead bird carcasses with chlorine.
Mmmmmm. Chicken bucket anyone?
Dan Hannan MEP is the son of a Peruvian chicken farmer and he doesn’t see a problem with chlorinated chicken. He’s not alone. Lots of Brexit voices from the guys at Guido Fawkes to Jacob Rees-Mogg have ‘no problem’ with it. And do you know why that is? Well it’s because they won’t be eating it. Because if America manages to import this stuff into the UK it will go to the bottom end of the market and end up in fast food restaurants and frozen meals. I doubt Jacob Rees-Mogg steps out at the KFC much. You rarely see Dan Hannan down the Ladywell kebab house. Good news for young ‘Octopus’ and the other kids because while everyone insists that chlorinated chicken is perfectly safe, the statistics tell a different story.
Take salmonella. In the US there are 1.2 million cases every year, 23,000 hospitalisations and 450 deaths. In the EU as a whole (and bear in mind there are 150 million more EU citizens than Americans) there were 1,766 hospitalisations in 2016 and just ten deaths.
So in essence something as mundane as your chicken nuggets, or your Balti, or that nice lunch time chicken wrap is affected by Brexit. If the EU migrants quit and the domestic industry suffers that’s not just a hole in the economy but a massive hole in your bank balance if – of course – you want a roast on Sunday or an M and S chicken sandwich. It will cost more. Probably a lot more. If the USA gets in on the action you’ll be eating an inferior product raised in unsavoury and unsanitary conditions. But hey – at least you’ll be able to cuddle up to your precious fucking sovereignty huh.
At least you’ll have that.