Poultry bosses come out fighting

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) and British Poultry Council (BPC) have issued a joint statement after days of sustained criticism of the British poultry industry.

An RSPCA campaign against cheap chicken has led to reports that most of the 855m broilers reared each year in the UK are kept in cramped, dimly lit sheds, and suffer health problems such as broken bones and skin disorders.

The NFU and BPC said the reports were full of "myths and misconceptions" and said it was important to tell the public that "chickens reared for meat are not 'battery farmed' and poultry producers in the UK are fed up of hearing the claim repeated."

Peter Bradnock, chief executive of the BPC, and Charles Bourns, chairman of the NFU poultry board, said animal welfare was the top priority for poultry producers because their birds were their most valuable assets. Low prices on supermarket shelves did not mean low welfare on farm.

"It's disappointing that once again the British media are referring to chickens reared for meat as 'battery' farmed. This is completely untrue and our members who look after the national flock are fed up to the back teeth of hearing it repeated. Chickens reared for meat in Britain are kept indoors or are free range - they are never kept in battery cages," they said.

"British poultry meat is produced to high standards which are independently validated and monitored by auditors from outside the industry. These scientifically based standards ensure sound welfare, environmental protection and safety. As well as this, welfare inspections are also often carried out by independent inspectors on behalf of producers' customers.

"The UK and the EU lead the world in animal welfare. British poultry farming is a highly regulated sector, both in law and in its assurance standards, which go beyond legal requirements."

It remains to be seen whether the statement will have the desired effect of reassuring consumers. Tonight on Channel 4, celebrity foodie Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall will present Hugh's Chicken Run, which shows the chef setting up his own intensive chicken farm in Dorset with the explicit aim of converting consumers to free-range poultry.