TV chef plays chicken with Tesco

Battery chickens will be on tenterhooks today as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall takes on Tesco...

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Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Fearnley-Whittingstall is heading to Tesco’s AGM today to ask investors to back his demands that Tesco adopts new rearing standards for its chickens. The TV chef has argued forcefully (notably on Hugh’s Chicken Run) that many of the chickens that Tesco sells are kept in appalling conditions on these intensive battery farms, and wants shareholders to force the supermarket only to use suppliers who conform to the RSPCA-backed ‘Freedom Food’ standards.

Tesco, of course, reckons the chef hasn’t got a leg to stand on. It insists that it demands ‘high standards of animal welfare’, has all its suppliers independently audited, endorses the ‘Five Freedoms’ concept proposed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (one of which is presumably not ‘life’), and is generally very humane and compassionate to these doomed chickens. It also points out that it was nominated in the ‘Best supermarket - food’ category at this year's RSPCA Good Business Awards (although it clearly didn’t win, so there must be some room for improvement at least).

If Fearnley-Whittingstall wins, it’ll be clucking great news for battery chickens. The Freedom scheme requires farms to provide 25% more space than the industry average, bright and dark areas, footballs to peck at, and bans the genetically modified faster-growing birds (who presumably could bully all the other chickens). And the chef has some heavyweight backing: corporate governance watchdog PIRC has offered its support, suggesting that Tesco’s ethical standards are lagging behind its rivals.

The problem, of course, is that free-range chickens probably means more expensive chickens – Tesco is unlikely to be able to sell birds for £1.99 if this motion is passed. And a time when household and fuel bills are soaring, is it really a good time to be asking hard-hit shoppers to pay more? Sure, in an ideal world, most of us would like to eat free-range, organic, GM-free chicken – on both health and ethical grounds – but not all of us are on a TV chef’s salary...

Still, it probably won’t matter since nobody seems to expect the motion to succeed (given that it needs 75% support) – not even PIRC, which is merely talking about raising awareness. But it’s another headache for the increasingly hen-pecked Tesco. The business case for an ethical approach is becoming more and more compelling – customers are starting to vote with their feet if retailers don’t measure up. So this is unlikely to be the last time it gets a grilling on its chicken policy...

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