Did you see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chickens, Hugh and Tesco Too last night? The Channel Four programme documented Hugh’s campaign, which began last year, to improve conditions for supermarket chickens. As we keep our own hens, Lexi and Molly, I was keen to find out what had gone on behind the scenes in the much-publicised wrangle with Tesco.
If you didn’t see it, what began with Hugh just trying to get a TV interview with Tesco’s management escalated into him buying a share in Tesco, attempting to get City investors onside, and tabling a resolution at Tesco’s AGM last summer. He argued that its standard indoor hen rearing system was incompatible with its claim to uphold the ‘Five Freedoms’, a set of animal husbandry principles ensuring animals lead stress-free lives.
Ultimately Hugh lost the AGM battle, but I think he won the war. Even as cynical former stock market journalist, I was appalled by Tesco’s apparent conduct. Admittedly we only really see Hugh’s side of the story and as a chicken owner I am biased. But the supermarket comes across as a bad egg.
Tesco appears to have given Hugh the interview run around for months. Eventually when it agreed to give one, management hid behind some poor media relations officer with no policy-making clout, who was forced to defend company policy on camera. To top it all, at the eleventh hour, the company insisted that Hugh fork out £86k for postage of the special resolution papers.
If you ask me, they were poorly advised. Why didn’t they stand up and be counted right away? A member of the management team should simply have stood up and said: “You know what, Hugh, our customers can’t afford to pay £7 for a free range chicken. They’re struggling to feed their families and they can only pay £2.50. We give them what they want. With all your money, you might be able to pay £7 or even raise your own hens, but they can’t. So there!” Why weren’t they brave enough to do that?
Personally I firmly believe we should pay a little more for at least an RSPCA Freedom Food bird, which is still factory farmed but has more room to move and express its natural behaviours, such as perching. I try to eat free range, but then I can afford to do so. However, I would have had respect for a logical financial argument on Tesco’s part. Instead it behaved like a childish bully. At least they have now upgraded their own Willow Farm chicken to conform with RSPCA Freedom Food standards.
Some fund managers interviewed argued that investors only care about profits. But some of them admitted that shareholders are also increasingly concerned with what they call ‘reputational risk’. If big companies behave badly it reflects on investors. And eventually profits fall as customers vote with their feet.
Certainly before I stopped working in the City nearly 18 months ago, investors had started to concern themselves with reputational risk in general, as well as environmental issues. But are they so concerned with it now that we’re in a recession? What’s more, in the midst of the credit crunch, just how relevant to consumers is Hugh’s battle now? Are people still worrying about the conditions chickens are bred in or are they only interested in obtaining cheap food?
I’d love to think Hugh’s campaign will galvanise us all into checking labels and thinking about the chicken we buy, as his Chicken Run programme did last year. And although I’m running an especially tight ship financially at the moment, I would rather eat less chicken and ensure it’s free range.
But if you’re facing redundancy, will chicken welfare be the first thing on your mind when you enter the supermarket?
What do you think about Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s chicken welfare campaign? Will you be buying free range/RSPCA Freedom Food chicken or has the recession put paid to that? Leave a message and let me know what you think.
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