Much has changed between Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 and Charles III’s this weekend. Especially if you are a chicken.
When the coronation chicken recipe was invented in Elizabeth’s honour, Brits ate under a kilo a year of the bird each. Now the average is around 25 times that amount. Chickens have also been bred to be bigger and to grow faster, making them cheaper. In 1957 a 1.9kg broiler – a chicken bred for meat – could be raised to slaughter in 70 days; today an average broiler can reach 2.2kg in half that time.
In a case at the High Court this week the Humane League is challenging the government over the farming practices behind this change. The NGO describes fast-growing breeds as “franken-chickens”, prone to a range of health problems, citing a recent RSPCA report. Consequently, it argues that use of the breeds is contrary to animal welfare regulations, which state that animals can only be farmed if their genetic makeup doesn’t present a detriment to their well-being.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) pushed back, but must now await the trial’s result. If the judge finds in the Humane League’s favour, the impact could be huge – and not just for poultry. As noted in my colleague Sophie McBain’s recent article on ultra-processed food, the modern food industry is also failing the health of humans and the planet.
Chicken production sits at the faltering heart of this system. “Even for those who refuse all moral arguments, the production of franken-chickens cannot be allowed to continue,” the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett told Green Times. Besides “the damage done to public health with the products made from their tortured flesh”, water, air and soil pollution are all also made worse by such intensive farming, she notes. As are the incubation of zoonotic disease and anti-microbial resistance.
The answer, suggests the Humane League’s managing director, Sean Gifford, lies in making animal welfare a political priority. “Successive governments have treated the environment and animals as commodities which only have monetary value.”
Some businesses are already acting, with Nestlé and KFC among those that have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment (a set of welfare policies that includes using only slower-growing breeds). But supermarkets are lagging behind. Only Waitrose and M&S have so far committed, and only the latter is yet meeting all the demands. Waitrose tells Green Times it aims to sell only slower-growing breeds by 2026.
Defra, meanwhile, has included the commitment in its Animal Health and Welfare Pathway, which offers farmers financial support to make the shift. But it has given little detail on what such support will involve. Legislation would make change a necessity.
With 90 per cent of the billion chickens slaughtered each year in the UK coming from fast-growing breeds, the Humane League estimates, it is highly likely that the spectre of the franken-chicken will be stalking coronation street parties this weekend.
The King can (and should) continue to beat the drum over climate change. And the Labour Party can (and should) continue to pressure the government to clean up sewage-filled rivers. Britain’s intensive meat farms sit at the nexus of these assaults on the environment. We must not wait till the next coronation to act.