In beak condition: how to avoid falling foul of mass-produced poultry

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

Safe bet: UK Hospitality recommends cooking chicken until it is 75°C all the way through
Safe bet: UK Hospitality recommends cooking chicken until it is 75°C all the way through
British chicken consumption is showing no signs of slowing but concerns remain over the safety and morality of the mass-production of poultry. How can pubs ensure the bird meat they offer isn’t going to give customers a bad time?

It didn’t take place in the pub, but the collective outrage over KFC’s failure to stock enough chicken to supply its hungry customers provided an excellent demonstration of the soaring popularity of poultry within the UK. Wings, breasts, drumsticks, Brits just can’t get enough of the plump, flight-challenged bird.

The numbers, to put it into context, become quite frightening. In January 2018, 100.3m chickens were slaughtered for consumption in the UK, up 3.8% on the previous year, according to statistics from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This equates to 20.1m birds per week, or one chicken for every three people in the UK, killed for our dining pleasure.

A popular option for pubs

In the on-trade, chicken remains a popular option for pubs for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is a versatile meat that easily takes on the flavours of herbs, spices and sauces, making it appealing for a range of dishes, from burgers to roast dinners and pies.

Secondly, at a time when catering to health-conscious diners is more important than ever, chicken is a godsend, offering diners a high-protein, low-fat option that remains filling, while not ruining the waistline.

“Chicken’s wide appeal, versatility and lean, protein-powered status, makes it a go-to option for operators,” explains Frannie Santos-Mawdsley, senior customer marketing manager of Moy Park, one of Europe’s leading poultry producers. “The beauty of chicken is that, ultimately, customers can’t get enough of it – eating it at least twice a week – and it lends itself incredibly well in a range of favourite dishes.

“From classics such as burgers and wraps to more adventurous options inspired by on-trend styles such as pan-Asian and South American, chicken can add colour, personality and, most importantly, profitability to pub menus.”

There is, however, a darker side to Brits’ ongoing passion for poultry, and that is the strain that demand can have upon both the quality and safety of the meat. In recent years, the living conditions of chickens nurtured for slaughter have come under ever closer scrutiny, after a number of high-profile food-safety scandals.

Alleged hygiene failings

In 2014, an investigation by The Guardian ​newspaper uncovered a catalogue of alleged hygiene failings in the poultry industry. The allegations, made against two of the largest UK poultry processors – 2 Sisters Food Group and Faccenda – included a factory floor covered in chickens guts in which bacteria could flourish, and carcasses coming into contact with workers’ boots then being returned to the production line.

Meanwhile, earlier this month 2 Sisters Food Group was found guilty of regulatory failures and poor hygiene at its poultry plants by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) after an undercover operation at its West Bromwich plant in September 2017.

The major risk associated with mass-scale chicken production is the spread of a type of food poisoning called Campylobacter, explains Dr Lisa Ackerley, food safety adviser at UKHospitality.

“Campylobacter is found in poultry and wild birds naturally,” she says. “While it doesn’t harm birds, it is a common culprit of food poisoning and in some cases, can also cause other serious conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome; those affected can be hospitalised, and around 100 people a year die from it.”

“The Food Standards Agency found 54% of chickens may be contaminated with Campylobacter. Because you can’t see bacteria, a sensible course of action is to presume that your chicken is contaminated and take the necessary precautions.

“Cooking the chicken properly is not enough,” Ackerley continues. “Outbreaks can easily occur as Campylobacter has a secret weapon – it is infectious in very low numbers, which means that you need to be extremely careful about cross-contamination; where bacteria from raw poultry could get onto a ready-to-eat product.”

Pubs concerned about the risks of Campylobacter are advised to consult guidelines released by the British Hospitality Association (BHA) – predecessor of the newly formed UKHospitality. Recommendations is-sued by BHA include: preparing raw chickens away from ready-to-eat foods such as salad; never washing chicken before cooking; and cooking chicken until it is 75°C all the way through.

Chicken welfare concerns

However, it isn’t just the welfare of consumers that is at stake when chicken is produced on a mass scale. Animal activists have long campaigned against the conditions in which battery chickens are kept, and life for broiler chickens can sometimes appear little better.

“In Europe alone, 7bn chickens are reared for meat each year, 90% of which live in intensive farming systems where they are confined in overcrowded barns, often with little or no natural light, and bred to grow so fast they suffer serious health and welfare problems,” explains Dr Tracey Jones, director of food business at Compassion in World Farming. “Chickens are sentient beings, not just commodities, capable of feeling a range of emotions from pain to joy and have the ability to lead complex lives.”

“They, therefore, deserve a good quality of life, which considers not only their physical wellbeing, but their mental and behavioural needs also. Delivering good welfare is underpinned by the provision of good housing, good feeding, good environment, good breeding and good management.”

Broiler chickens are typically kept in artificially lit sheds with between 20,000 to 30,000 other birds, where water, feed and antibiotics are dispensed using computer systems. The units are cleaned very rarely, leading to the build-up of faeces and ammonia, which consequently contributes to the spread of disease.

“Campylobacter is not only a food safety issue, but a bird welfare issue too,” adds Jones. “A growing body of evidence shows that Campylobacter causes intestinal inflammation, mucosal damage, and changes in the bird’s gut permeability.

“The latter allows the bacteria into the body via the bloodstream and results in Campylobacter contamination within the muscle and liver. The public health issue is, therefore, not isolated to outer contamination.”

As a result of these ethical concerns, some operators are turning away from chicken altogether. Last month, a Liverpool pub was named by animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as one of the top 10 places in the UK to find vegan-friendly fried ‘chicken’.

Use of meat substitutes

The Caledonia, a community pub in the Georgian quarter of the city, serves a host of dishes including ‘chicken’ burgers and wings, made from meat substitute seitan, and licensee Laura King has decided to make the entire pub offering vegan.

“My personal concern is just meat in general; I think it’s gross,” she says. “But, as a consumer, I always want to know where my food comes from. We buy through an organic, fair-trade company, and I know exactly which farm my food comes from and how much the workers were paid. It’s totally traceable and it is more wholesome. It might be a bit more expensive but it’s worth it.

“I was slightly worried about our regulars because we are a strong community pub but everyone has taken to it like a duck to water,” she continues. “For the business, we also now have a USP that nobody else in the city has. We get people travelling from all the outlying villages and towns outside of Liverpool to come to the pub.”

If pubs do insist on serving chicken, Compassion in World Farming recommends looking out for UK certification schemes such as RSPCA Assured, free range and organic for ethically reared birds, and working more closely with suppliers to ensure high welfare standards throughout the supply chain.

Consumer interest in provenance and welfare is an opportunity for operators to build trust with their clientele,” Jones says. “Restaurants and bars that can talk confidently about where their products and ingredients come from have a real story to tell their customers who, in turn, can connect with their food in a deeper way and have confidence that what they’re eating comes from a fairer, kinder food system.”

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