09/01/2008 - 00:00
Two celebrity chefs have gained backing for their Chicken Run campaign targeting consumers and caterers in a bid to improve the welfare of birds suffering in 'abysmal' intensive conditions.

In the three-night Channel 4 TV series, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is trying to convert residents in his home town of Axminster to buy and promote free range rather than battery chickens. He is supported by Jamie Oliver. When rearing young chicks on his farm – 2000 in free range conditions and a similar number couped up in a smelly building – Hugh is seen near to tears as he is forced to cull weaker birds that will not make the grade. Applauding his brave stance, the Soil Association says: "A general shift towards more 'free range' production would certainly be a positive step forward. But one still some way behind our own organic poultry systems. "These ensure truly free range birds and offer the highest standards of animal welfare, acknowledged by respected animal welfare groups such as Compassion in World Farming." Intensively farmed chickens reared for meat can be housed in flocks 30 – 40,000 strong. Even the RSPCA's Freedom Food standards allow 16,000 egg-laying birds per house, and there is no limit on flock size for free-range meat birds. Again the Soil Association says that this contrasts with its organic standards when recommending flock sizes of 500 - with absolute maximum flock sizes of 1,000 for meat birds and 2,000 for egg birds allowed only with special permission and additional management measures. Axminster residents stressed that the supermarket standard chickens for the oven were half the price of organic ones but also praised Fearnley-Wittingstall's actions, He was angry at the major supermarkets for refusing to debate the issue and was joined by Oliver who was critical of Sainsbury, reputed to be paying him £1m for promoting their produce.

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