The red junglefowl is a proud looking bird, a type of pheasant, found in south-east Asian countries including Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. The male has beautiful gold and bronze coloured feathers with large red wattles and comb on its head.
Despite its striking plumage, it’s an unremarkable bird in many ways, apart from the fact that it’s the genetic ancestor of all the domestic poultry in the world. It may have taken 5,000 years of animal husbandry and breeding, but the red junglefowl is the granddaddy of every chicken you’ve ever eaten.
There’s no doubt that, as a nation, we love chicken. In everything from takeaways and sandwiches to Sunday roasts and stir-fries, about 1.5 million tonnes of poultry are eaten in the UK every year, which is about twice as much as we produce.
Remarkably, half of all British meals with meat involve poultry. This figure includes duck, turkey and goose but the vast majority
of it is, of course, chicken. We’re more or less self-sufficient in satisfying our demand for fresh bird meat, but consumer tastes influence our imports and exports of processed or frozen poultry. The dark meat isn’t particularly popular here, so most of it is exported overseas, while we buy in more of the breast meat, which British shoppers are so keen on.
Chickens produced for the table are known as broilers and we’ve bred them to grow quickly, from hatching to being oven-ready in about 35 days. They have large leg and chest joints to keep the modern consumer happy. Most birds are reared indoors, but recently there’s been an increase in the number of free-range broilers, again in response to public demand. Different types of poultry have specific roles in the food business, so broilers are completely different from the commercial egg-laying birds. The layers aren’t really meaty at all because they’ve been selectively bred to supply the maximum number of eggs – up to 300 per bird every year.
Turkeys take much longer to reach maturity, up to 26 weeks, and it takes a lot more effort, food and time to rear them, which explains why they’re more expensive, pound for pound. Like chicken, most will be reared indoors.
Until the 1950s, turkey was really seen as a luxury food and out of reach for the average working family. Now it’s available on the shelves of every supermarket and turkey farmers work all year round to supply more than 20 million birds for the table. Although it’s no surprise that Christmas is the high point of the turkey producers’ year, with about half of all the birds sold in the UK eaten over the festive period.
Thanks to TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, we’re much more aware of exactly what we’re eating and the way in which chickens and turkeys are reared in this country. It’s a fact that flocks of more than 50 birds have to be registered – there are strict health and welfare measures that have to be in place and legislation to prevent overcrowding.
But there are still some common misconceptions. Many people think that chickens are fed antibiotics as a matter of course, but in fact that isn’t the case. A poultry shed will only be treated if a disease or illness is detected and then it will be treated for a limited amount of time. Importantly, the birds can’t be used for meat until the antibiotics have left their system and they’re deemed safe for human consumption.
I think, as an industry, British farming has become much more open and informative about how we work, but of course not all the turkey and chicken on sale comes from the UK and no one can guarantee the quality of every piece of imported meat. So for reassurance I’d urge anyone to just ask at the counter. Even staff in a fast food restaurant should be able to tell you the origins of the meal they’re serving you.