Sarah Todd: True cost of a chicken for the price of a pint

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AMERICA has brought us so many things this correspondent loves to hate.

Mobile phones, school proms, computers and the internet, trousers halfway down backsides... Now, it is feared, chlorinated chicken could be the next import from the good ol’ US of A.

As a farmer’s daughter, sentimentality about animals bred for slaughter isn’t on my radar. However, there is something about the value (or rather lack of it) in the food chain given to the humble chicken that has always made me feel uneasy. But now, it seems, the bird has finally got its moment in the spotlight because of Brexit negotiations. A quick scout around and it’s already easy to buy a whole chicken here in the UK for under £3 (the Tesco website shows one for £2.79).

Yes, the general public wants cheap food but being able to buy a whole bird for less than a pint of beer leaves, for me, a bad taste. What sort of a life can it have had to only be traded for that amount of money at the supermarket checkout?

The UK’s international trade secretary Liam Fox ruffled feathers when he mentioned a new post-Brexit deal with America could mean even lower-cost chicken meat. Was that meant to be good news?

There’s more to this argument than simply fears about the chlorine the American chickens are washed in. The process is deemed by the European Food Safety Authority as “unlikely to pose an immediate or acute health risk for consumers”.

What’s bugging me – and plenty of experts – is the very real possibility that allowing producers to dip their chickens in chlorine appears to give them a free pass to engage in unhygienic and welfare poor farming practices before the slaughter.

It stands to reason that some more unscrupulous factory owners (in my mind such large-scale exporters aren’t what we know as farmers) won’t give a jot about the conditions these poor birds are kept in if, after slaughter, they know every carcass is going to be sloshed in chemicals. A cocktail so strong that it will erase all evidence of the chickens’ sorry, and pathetically short, lives.

There’s one thing for sure, these American birds can’t have any quality of life if it would be possible to send them over here and still be able to undercut British producers.

This chicken business has really hit the headlines this week. One golden nugget – forgive the bad pun – is that it must be a good thing that the population has been spurred into talking about what might happen to British agriculture and the food chain in general post Brexit.

Another upshot is that more people know Michael Gove is the Environment Secretary than were ever aware of his predecessor Andrea Leadsom. He stuck his neck out live on Radio 4’s Today programme stating he is prepared to say “no” to the chlorine- washed chickens.

He is also busy telling anybody that will listen that he’s going to deliver a “green Brexit”. His mantra seems to be that the country has an historic opportunity to review its policies on agriculture, land use, biodiversity, woodlands, marine conservation, fisheries, pesticide licensing, chemical regulation, animal welfare, habitat management, waste, water purity, air quality “and so much more”.

He is right, the country needs to grasp the nettle and set out its stall. Allowing sub-standard cheap imports isn’t the way forward.

It’s not right for the British consumer and it’s certainly not fair on our country’s farmers.

All his comments about an environmentally-sound Brexit made this writer think back to a debate held at the Great Yorkshire Show earlier this month.

The Yorkshire and East Riding federations of the Young Farmers’ Club (YFC) movement invited speakers to debate the topic of farming verses the environment. Countryfile and Farming Today presenter Charlotte Smith, who has recently taken over the reins as national president of the YFC, chaired the event.

One of the panellists, West Riding county advisor for the National Farmers’ Union, James Mills, said: “If a farmer isn’t in the black he can’t go green.” A short sentence, but one that rang a bell with a good many people present.

Mr Gove is an urbane former national newspaper journalist. His London life is a million miles away from the daily clarty-wellied grind of many small family farms. Hugging the trees and planting wildflower meadows isn’t so easy if you’ve got ewes to lamb or cows to milk.

The landed gentry, some of whom have pocketed hundreds of thousands of pounds in annual EU farming subsidies, have helped tarnish people’s sympathies for farmers. Perhaps recognising this, the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) president Ross Murray has been on the ball in setting out the organisation’s vision for the future. At the core of his proposal is ending the much-criticised European Basic Payment Scheme which pays farmers and landowners based on the amount of land they farm.

Instead, the CLA would like to see a switch to a new system centred on supporting those who manage land in a way that delivers public benefits, from improvements in soil quality to enhanced animal welfare and planting trees.

All good stuff, but the Brexit negotiators mustn’t forget the majority of farms that are somewhere between the big estates and the smallholders and kitchen sink producers who, with their attendance at farmers’ markets, have blurred the lines.

The general public could be forgiven that farming is either on a Downton Abbey scale or all roses around the door potting jam and baking bread when the reality is very different.

Henry IV declared: “I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he cannot have a chicken in his pot every Sunday”.

Such a sentiment rings true in Brexit bound 2017. But with a whole chicken already available – for less than the aforementioned pint of beer – we don’t need to be looking across the Atlantic. Or eat anything that might as well have been dunked in a swimming pool.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine.