Friday, 18 January 2008

(Mis)Adventures of an Ethical Shopper (part 1)

So , chicken is popping up everywhere all over the media after last week's chicken welfare crusade by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver.
I think the worst bit was seeing audience members unwittingly separating male from female chicks ; which once collected were instantly put to death by oxygen deprivation ,live on television . The males that is . At least there is a legitimate use for these tiny "by-products" of the egg business . They all go to feed zoo animals and exotic pets and none are wasted , but seeing film of these little creatures being divided on an industrial scale ; the tiny hapless males tumbling off conveyor belts in to crates , was stomach churning .To see any baby animal (for me) whether it be up close , through a t.v screen or in a photograph , is to bond sympathetically with it . I dare not even cast my mind back over the other method of dispatching them ; going live straight in to a grinder ....

I've bought Free Range eggs since I owned my own fridge ; getting on for 20 years . The horrors of battery egg production have been well documented through all this time , so half a hurrah for the phasing out of this unnecessarily cruel and restrictive system by 2012 , but why has it taken that long ?
The part of this campaign that really stirred my sleepwalking good intentions was the FACT that most of the chickens we EAT fare no better ; indeed in cheaper products they are discarded battery-egg layers.I decided it was high time to buy ethically sourced chicken , so took note of the brand names which represent poultry raised under the RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme . This is "Oakham" in Marks and Spencer , "Willow Farm" in Tesco etc . Whilst it may not be wholly free range it is a huge stride in the right direction . Chickens have more room , light , perches and distractions to allow them to express natural behaviour .
As a family we really enjoy a roast chicken on a Sunday , but from now on it will be ethically sourced or it won't get to my table ! I am a concerned consumer ; an ethical shopper , who tries to put their money where their mouth is , but after Saturday's usual food shop I was left utterly disillusioned . What's more annoying than having the rug pulled from under your feet when they're already standing on the moral high ground ? Yes , and where ARE your organic / RSPCA Freedom badged birds Mr. Tesco ???

I bought an "Oakham" chicken from M+S , but once home noted that whilst it's guaranteed to be "juicy" it isn't actually guaranteed to be humanely reared . No mention of enriched living conditions on this particular poultry "unit of production".
I'm left wondering (hoping) if I've done the right thing - from now on I'm not going to bolster an industry founded on indifferent , or at worst inhumane animal husbandry , that has lead to chicken becoming a preposterously cheap meat ; costing less pound for pound than dog food .... well , if I can avoid it ...

Back to Tesco...

Take a trip around the familiar aisles of your usual store once the blinkers of
supermarket anasthaesia are wearing off - you'll be depressed .
Most shoppers plough a weary furrow around the shop , picking out the same items week on week . We've all become divorced from the reality of just what we're eating by the sanitised little polystyrene trays . Small children probably expect a live chicken to have 10 legs (the better to be neatly packaged up together ... well , less the bit of leg showing tell-tale ammonia burns from its living conditions)
I usually buy breaded chicken strips because they're quick and convenient , and sit in the freezer for those occasions when I haven't got time to make a proper meal from scratch (something else I could get really evangelical about !)Right ... so no chicken strips this week because there's no such thing as organic or RSPCA approved ones ! I searched , increasingly frustrated , for an alternative , having rejected the unappetising veggie options . Finally I plunked a box of mini salmon en croutes in the trolley - MINI SALMON EN CROUTES !!! How bizarre ! It really doesn't help my intentions when I have an 11 year old who is stubborn to the point of being utterly intractable about his (limited) food choices . For that meal he had to make do with a Free Range egg !

It seems I'm going to have to expend a lot more shoe leather to search out acceptable chicken choices from this point .I mean , just because I care about the state of my food when its still running around , doesn't mean it has to be all sackcloth and ashes does it?
Before I realise , I've already compromised my enlightened ideals by putting the usual tin of mexican chicken soup in the trolley (hell-shed broiler) then there were those cajun chicken burgers the kids like sometimes on a Monday ("rubbish-tea night") um ,no won't buy those anymore . Eleven yr old pulls a face . Pressed chicken for sarnies ? Er , not this time . Chicken pies ? No. Kievs ? Uh-uh ! Chicken Tikka pieces for wraps ? NO ! Look , I don't want to start buying happy chickens only to spend miserable whole days myself , cutting , breading and freezing it , or virtuously simmering vats of soup and lami-foil bagging it !! The frustration of Hobson's choice set in (as in you can buy it or not . That's your choice !)

It is lovely , heart warming , that two of the children in the household are right behind me in my efforts . My (nearly) 18 yr old thinks it's all eye-wash , and in any case "chickens are ugly and deserve it !" Good grief , I've spawned a sociopath !
Mind you , I think older teens fall in to two categories ; those who carry the woes of the world firmly on their politically sensitive shoulders , and endlessly remind you of the fact , and the tribe my son comes from ; who wish the world and its woes - including any kind of reality - would just bog off and be tragic elsewhere !

I suspect I shall be thwarted in my ethical endeavours in many ways - eventually there's bound to be a Part 2 to this .I may have to settle for some sort of compromise ( 2 ethical poultry products for one that isn't ??)I'm certainly not seeking to be preachy - this is my own "courage of convictions" moment only .I may be in a minority ... but I'm determined not to just chicken out .......

T.T.F.N Ruth


All Bear said...

Great entry Ruth! I really enjoyed reading it and am so glad you were writing what I was thinking (but was too lazy to put into words myself!) I must admit to having a conscience flush every time I reach for one of those nice little white polystyrene trays ... but when my eye wanders for a feasible alternative, it is challenged by a)higher prices and b)lack of choice in terms of the available cuts; I mean, come on, if they want us to buy ethically, please at least give us 'ohsobusy' family feeders happy chickens, neatly diced or chopped into manageable portions ... I draw the line at butchering the blessed things myself.

Forgive me Father for I have sinned and given into the miserable cheap chicken portions yet again - but hey, may I have some brownie points for buying yummy free range happy chicken eggs? It's only a small change I know, in my weak attempts to be a considerate chicken muncher, but I'm working on it, honestly!

Ruth said...

HeeHee Paula ,I am totally in agreement ... especially the guilt thing .I suppose if we all took the "compromise" route (even occasionally) some sort of impact would filter through to thick corporate heads eventually ..... let's really hope so. :0)