The Cost of Cheap Chicken

In a country that just a year ago decided to introduce the “traffic light labeling” system, using green, yellow and red to simplify (too much, in our opinion) the consumer’s choice, another food scandal has erupted.


An investigation by the Guardian has revealed that two thirds of fresh poultry sold in UK supermarkets is contaminated by campylobacter, a common bacteria, which in elevated quantities can cause sickness and in some cases death (an estimated 280,000 cases of illness and 100 deaths a year in the UK).


Regardless of the technology used in raising, slaughtering and processing, which is still perfectible, what is shocking is that in a country that experienced the outbreak of mad cow disease, we once again are seeing a scandal in the meat industry, of massive proportions.


The bacteria in question develop in the feces and organs of chickens (crest and wattle), and contamination occurs due to poor hygiene in facilities or malfunctioning of machinery that separates the meat from the innards and waste. We could reduce this issue to a question of technology, but it seems to me that the real problem is another.


At the core of the matter of this – not the first and for sure not the last – appalling case, is the food system in its entirety, which demands increasing volumes at ever lower prices in evermore rapid timeframes: this case can be regarded as an example of this global model.


A broiler chicken, for example, arrives at the slaughterhouse at 3 kg, a weight it achieves in 32-40 days. The density of animals per square meter is becoming increasingly higher. Even at the moment of slaughter, there is no time to stop the production line (which works exactly as a factory for car parts) if there is need to clean the machinery in case of failure or spills. To give you an idea: An industrial slaughterhouse will slaughter around 10,000 – 12,000 chickens an hour.


If this is the model that the agrifood business is based on, then very soon there will be crackdowns on health and food safety legislation. Even though Italy has adopted measures more restrictive than those prescribed by the EU in this regard (and whoever complains about the excess of controls in our country should stop and reflect when food scandals such as this break out), the point is that we must radically change our approach to food consumption.


We have confused the concept of low cost with low price. This is not a stylistic distinction; it is an enormous conceptual difference. To pay pennies for a kilo of chicken breast does not mean that the cost is low, only that the price is.


Amongst the costs to consider are environmental (in terms of raw materials wasted, large amounts of antibiotics released into waterways, contamination of the soil with nitrates from high concentration of animals in the factory farm) and social (foremost, our health). Just think that, according the Guardian’s inquiry, the health costs of campylobacter contamination (80% of which are attributable to the poultry industry) is £900 million per year. Compared to the poultry industry’s turnover of 3,3 billion pounds, this is almost 30% of the total!


Ok, but who pays these costs? It certainly isn’t those who are profiting from the poultry industry. But instead it is the taxpayers, those who think that they have saved on their groceries. And this is the point: We have let ourselves be convinced that low price equals low cost. Wrong, and every day we experience this misconception.


This paradigm must change. Only by educating people that our health is dependent on the food we eat can we understand that low price simply means that a part of the cost is being paid by somebody else.


If we don’t deconstruct this basic misunderstanding, we will never escape from this model, which maximizes the profits for the agrifood industry and dumps the negative consequences on society. If we don’t escape quickly from the myth that we must pursue the demands of the market, there will be no future for quality food.


Also because, and to me this is absurd, even if people are willing to sacrifice the taste or environmental friendliness of their food, I do not believe that anyone in their right mind would sacrifice their own health on the altar of price competitiveness. Nevertheless, the absence of education that would make us understand and demand correct information allows precisely this to happen every day.


On the other hand, small-scale farming and agriculture that is environmentally sustainable, maybe even able to generate closed production cycles with the reuse of outputs as primary and secondary materials, will certainly have a higher price tag than industrial products, but the overall costs will certainly be lower.


Popular wisdom already condensed these thoughts into an apt saying; “He who spends more… spends less.”


It might be time to listen to these words carefully. 


Translated from an article published in Italian newspaper La Repubblica 

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