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Review: Hugh's Chicken Run

Posted on January 10, 2008 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Hugh's Chicken Run

In the UK: Monday 7th to Wednesday 9th, 9pm, Channel 4

January has seen the start of Channel 4's Big Food Fight. It's been heavily advertised and the schedules are crammed with programmes about food. What it's actually about is slightly less obvious. We've a live cookathon with Gordon Ramsay to look forward to a week tomorrow, but this week's offerings concern what happens to our food before we eat it. What's the link? I don't know.

Chicken appears to be the big concern, though. Apparently, chickens aren't treated very well before they get killed then eaten, except for some strange variety called "free range" that get treated slightly better – before being killed then eaten. Who knew?

ABC1s, that's who. C2s, Ds, et al? All clueless dimwits apparently (oops. Veering into Peter De Lane territory now). Channel 4, of course, had great success with its Jamie's School Dinners campaign so for 'the dimwits', there's Jamie's Fowl Dinners on Friday to look forward to - I think he's just going to stick a chicken in Black and Decker Workmate or something.

But only the really middle class, well off or well meaning can afford to spend three consecutive nights watching hour-long Channel 4 documentaries. So to give the ABC1s a chance to sneer at the prols for being so uneducated and crass, which was surely the real point of Jamie's School Dinners, there's been three hours of Hugh's Chicken Run, in which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tries to turn the town of Axminster into the first free-range town in Britain while simultaneously convincing all the supermarkets to only stock free-range chicken.

How did he try to do that? By setting up his own intensive chicken farm.

The basic plot of Hugh's Chicken Run goes something like this. Hugh F-W thinks the way chickens are treated by standard farming practices is awful. If only they were treated as well as the ones at River Cottage (products from which are now on sale at his shop in Axminster, hint, hint). So he tries to find a farmer willing to let him film in one of the intensive chicken houses. He can't. He also can't get the supermarkets to have an on-air meet with him.

Naturally, being thoroughly committed to chicken welfare, he therefore decides to buy 2,000 or so standard chicks and bung them in an intensive chicken farm which he will build according to industry standards. At the same time, he'll also rear another 1,000 or so according to free-range standards, while simultaneously getting a load of Axminster estate dwellers to rear their own chickens on an allotment so they understand the importance of being slightly nicer to chickens before hanging them upside down, giving them an electric shock then cutting their neck and letting them bleed to death so they can be eaten.

Over the three episodes, we then follow Hugh as he learns the ways of the intensive farmer: how to snap the necks of chicks that are a bit smaller than the others; how to stop them from eating each other because they've gone mad; how to stop the chickens getting ammonia burns from their faeces-laden litter. And so on. We also get to see how the allotment crowd fare with their chickens, as they slowly become attached to their new pets… no, mustn't think of them as pets or else it'll be hard to kill them.

The final episode revealed whether Hugh managed to convince both the allotment crowd, the town of Axminster and indeed the world, including supermarkets and politicians, that intensive chicken farming practices are bad and free-range is good.

With the exception of one allotment worker called Hayley, a singularly flinty woman who repeated like a mantra "I'm a single parent with two children and this is what I can afford" at every possible opportunity, the allotment crowd have now all vowed to go free-range. Axminister isn't so readily convinced and think for some reason it's all just a con by Hugh to get everyone to eat his River Cottage chicken (£18 a go, the rumours circulate). Certainly, despite the same message being given to Hugh at every possible opportunity by everyone on a salary of £12k or less, he seems unconvinced: it's just 50p a head extra per meal, he suggests, but the poorer locals are having none of it.

He seems to have a little more success with the supermarkets. Although, Waitrose et al say they're all going to take their cues from their customers, Sainsbury's is the only one that seems to changes its practices seriously. Whether every branch will have the TV screens showing the different rearing conditions of the different types of Sainsbury's chickens, I don't know: I've certainly not seen ones in the lovely SE London branches I've been frequenting. I suspect they're going to wait to see how the public react to Hugh's campaign.

On the whole, well-made and well-intentioned as it was. it's hard not to think of the show as preaching to the converted. Hugh F-W, unlike Jamie Oliver, has never been a big name with anyone outside the well-off middle classes who'll probably already buy "Taste the Difference" or "Tesco's Finest" every time. So only those worried about chickens already are likely to be watching: after all, how many people will watch a programme that should be subtitled "What you're doing is wrong" of their own volition.

I suspect it might take a while for this particular campaign to take off. The self-interest of not having your kids become obese or live shorter lives and the obvious requirement to do or sacrifice nothing except slag off schools and look down at Turkey Twizzler addicts in the Jamie's School Dinners campaign meant it could gain widespread support and politicians could look good for doing very little. Trying to convince the Great British Public to spend more money when they go to the shops, just so some chickens can have better lives before they get killed after a couple of months, even if it does supposedly taste better: that's a far more selfless and tricky argument to put forward. Few politicians are going to endorse further regulation of supermarkets if it only results in food becoming more expensive for voters and fewer contributions to their campaigns. The fact it's on Channel 4, rather than E4, ITV1 or BBC1, means that the message is less than likely to get to the people it wants to reach, too.

Since, thanks to Gordon Ramsay, I'm now vegetarian, clearly TV campaigns can change people's eating behaviour. Seeing Hugh breaking down after having to kill another chicken and seeing the conditions in his mini-death house might well convince someone tuning in that intensive or even any kind of chicken farming is bad.

But I think Hugh's argument is a little more emotional than logical (I'm trying to avoid vegetarian lecturing here, honestly): are we really supposed only to be worried about inflicting poor living conditions and pain on chickens, not killing them off? Pain is worse than death? It's like an "anti-Rumsfeld doctrine" or being worried about whether the injection you give a death row prisoner causes them pain when they're dying or not. Once you've accepted that it's okay to raise chickens simply so you can eat them, surely what you do to them while they're alive is neither here nor there?

As one of the Axminster locals puts it, "if you're so worried about chickens, why don't you become vegetarian?" It's hard not to think that Hugh's campaign is in far more of a grey area than "don't let schools feed your kids crap or else they'll get fat and die" was. Still, tiny acorns and all that.

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