The Frontal Cortex

Killing Chickens on Television

I’ve got a big man-crush on Jamie Oliver. And I really appreciate his latest stunt:

Last Friday, in front of 4 million television viewers and a studio audience, the chef Jamie Oliver killed a chicken. Having recently obtained a United Kingdom slaughterman’s license, Mr. Oliver staged a “gala dinner,” in fact a kind of avian snuff film, to awaken British consumers to the high costs of cheap chicken.

“A chicken is a living thing, an animal with a life cycle, and we shouldn’t expect it will cost less than a pint of beer in a pub,” he said Monday in an interview.

“It only costs a bit more to give a chicken a natural life and a reasonably pleasant death,” he told the champagne-sipping audience before he stunned the chicken, cut an artery inside its throat, and let it bleed to death, all in accordance with British standards for humane slaughter.

Mr. Oliver said that he wanted people to confront the reality that eating any kind of meat involves killing an animal, even if it is done with a minimum of pain.

I was at the supermarket this morning and they had a special on chicken pieces: $1.29 a pound. That’s a cheaper price per pound than broccoli, green apples or naval oranges. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a special on gala apples – 99 cents a pound – everything in the produce section besides yellow onions and loose carrots would have more been more expensive than the chicken.

Needless to say, meat really shouldn’t be this cheap. Such low prices are only possible because of factory poultry farms, which are a fucking abomination. And if the ethical considerations don’t keep you from buying cheap chicken – and the ethics should really be enough – keep in mind that, in my experience, humanely raised chicken tastes much better (i.e., it tastes like an actual chicken, and not just the kind of watery protein mush that normally passes for chicken breast.)


  1. #1 Carly B
    January 16, 2008

    As a vegetarian, I’d like to say kudos for this blog!

  2. #2 Mary
    January 16, 2008

    This reminds me of episode 6 of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” in which the restaurant patron orders a chicken dish to be prepared tableside. The waiter promptly brings a live chicken out and starts sharpening his knives. Told to stop immediately, he looks perplexed: “But sir, this is what you ordered.” So it is…

  3. #3 Alan
    January 16, 2008

    Free-range chicken, which is more expensive, tastes better than watery protein mush that is passed off as chicken breast, which is itself an illusion. (Just kidding a bit).

    But in all earnestness, this is an important issue. The ethical ramifications extend far wider and deeper than factory farms and cheap chicken for consumers. Humans add antibiotics to chicken feed, and this in part, may be a factor why we are seeing so many methicillin resistant forms of bacteria. Truly a frightening development. Factory farm waste fouls the water of neighboring communities. Chicken manure is widely used as crop fertilizer, the components of which leach into groundwater. Entire ecosystems are affected by the practice of factory farming, while the price paid at the register fails to reflect its true cost.

  4. #4 Robert P.
    January 16, 2008

    Free-range chicken and grass-fed beef are not THAT much more expensive. If we quit subsidizing the feeder lots and the corn industry, then the prices would probably be comparable. As someone said above, the taste is remarkably better.

    Buy local, not just organic.

  5. #5 Rachael
    January 16, 2008

    Woh, major props for pulling that off on TV! This is going to sound funny, but I really want to kill a chicken. After reading about Polyfacefarm in Omnivore’s Dilemma, the urge has struck me big time.

    Also, I would encourage everyone interested in humane treatment to look not just for “free range” (which is more like “free range crammed in a big indoor farm”), but also “pastured” (which means that the chicken actually grazed on a pasture, in the open, eating bugs).

  6. #6 cephyn
    January 16, 2008

    “Needless to say, meat really shouldn’t be this cheap.”

    Um, depending on how you look at it. I see it as “vegetables shouldn’t be this expensive.”

  7. #7 jb
    January 16, 2008

    My aunt, who was born in 1921, can remember that eating chicken was a really big deal and was reserved for Sunday dinner. To her it meant that one of the chickens she fed every day had been slaughtered. To this day, she is not very fond of chicken.

  8. #8 tim
    January 16, 2008

    So I’m confused – feeding people should be more expensive?

    “Buy local, not just organic.”

    Right now its 24 degrees outside where I am typing this and I am eating a clementine imported from morocco. Not only would it be prohibitively expensive to grow that fruit here (or any fruit for that matter) but to fuel the greenhouses would contribute significantly to global warming. The fact is growing that fruit in morocco and shipping it to this area is extraordinarily efficient use of resources.

    Listen I am all for buying local to support my local farmers (I’m from a farm family myself). Heck I even go to a independent butcher and buy organic most of the time. But the very fact is I can -afford- to. My brother and his family of 5 can’t. You tell them chicken or other meats should be more expensive and they would feel you should be committed. And, frankly, I would agree with them.

    (I have noticed with some bit of irony that Jamie has grown a bit heavier since his naked chef days)

  9. #9 Eleanor
    January 16, 2008

    Couldn’t agree more. I wish everyone was forced to slaughter their own meat once in a while so that they can be reconnected with the animal that it came from.

  10. #10 natural cynic
    January 16, 2008

    IIRC, what they can call “free-range” chicken is hardly that free-range. Much of it is produced on slightly modified factory farms, just as regular market chickens are. The chicks are started for about 4 weeks in the same indoor-only feeding situation and for the rest of their lives are allowed to run around in outdoor pens through an access door. The chickens are conditioned to stay indoors and rarely go outside. Since they are allowed to run around outside [but rarely do] they can be labelled “free-range”. Feeding may be slightly different, with no antibiotics for organic.

    I don’t recall the source, but I think it may have been Mother Jones.

  11. #11 john
    January 16, 2008

    Even in warm climates, chicks need extra heat for several weeks after hatching. They can’t be left outside without a hen to provide warmth or lead them to food. If hens produce a clutch of eggs and stop laying to care for chicks for several weeks, we will be right back to eating expensive chicken only on Sunday.

    Even if they can’t eat chicken in the future, the poor can be glad that their economic betters have made it possible for food animals to enjoy the fairy tale lives of rural legend.

  12. #12 Anastasia Bodnar
    January 17, 2008

    Bravo for Jamie Oliver.

    It’s hard to justify a diet that includes meat 3x per day when you consider the amount of resources needed to produce it. Eating lower on the food chain is simply better for the environment. I’m not saying that everyone should stop eating animals altogether, but cutting out a few hamburgers a week could go a long way to solving some of the worst environmental problems. And that’s without even considering any ethics or humane treatment issues.

  13. #13 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    January 17, 2008

    …we shouldn’t expect it will cost less than a pint of beer in a pub

    That’s a cheaper price per pound than broccoli, green apples or naval oranges. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a special on gala apples – 99 cents a pound – everything in the produce section besides yellow onions and loose carrots would have more been more expensive than the chicken.

    Why do you and Jamie Oliver have this irrational bias against plants and fungus?

  14. #14 matt
    January 17, 2008
  15. #15 Luna_the_cat
    January 18, 2008

    The problem isn’t just providing cheap meat, you know. The problem is feeding a population bigger than it’s ever been without turning over every single acre of potentially arable land to raising animals. Additionally, there are millions of low-income families out there who are more concerned with being able to eat, period, than where the meat comes from and how it was raised, and until living conditions are such that they can find and afford higher priced meat without having to give up some other necessity (like paying the electric or phone bill), then you are not going to get any change.

    Incidentally, I grew up on a ranch and have worked ranch and family farm, both, and I eat meat on the basis that I am perfectly comfortable with my role as a carnivore, raising and killing animals. Having said that, the birds bred for “meat chickens” are horrible travesties; many meat chickens can only be safely raised as largely immobile animals, because their body mass so far exceeds what their legs can support that their legs frequently simply snap if they are allowed to move around. (Yes, I do know this first-hand.) But until you can guarantee the vast majority of people enough affordable resource in some other fashion, then factory farming of high-yield animals is what it’s going to be.

  16. #16 Caledonian
    January 18, 2008

    The fact is growing that fruit in morocco and shipping it to this area is extraordinarily efficient use of resources.

    No. An extraordinarily efficient use of resources would be for you to NOT eat clementines but to eat a local fruit, in season, and ideally one that you’d grown yourself.

    Shipping a tropical fruit halfway across the planet just so some fool can stuff his gob is not an “extraordinarily efficient use” of our dangerously-limited resources.

  17. #17 jeffk
    January 18, 2008

    This is good to see. Usually the only discussions about animal ethics that end up on ScienceBlogs – a place usually noteworthy for its intelligent discourse – are variations on “OMG PETA is SOOO crazy!!”. Yes, as scientists, we’re obligated to recognize that PETA is, in fact, SOOO crazy. But we should also be talking about this seriously – how much meat should we be eating? Where should it come from? This post pleases me very much.

  18. #18 Reilly Owens
    January 21, 2008

    That’s funny: I have a man-crush on Gordon Ramsay, who actually did this first, on all three seasons of The F Word. He wanted to show his children––and by television extension––Britain, where their dinner came from. He raised first turkeys, then pigs, and then sheep, and attended the animals’ slaughters (except one of the sheep, which was eaten by a wild animal on David Beckham’s estate).

    He served the animals to diners on the final episode of each season. Strange to witness his small children thoroughly enjoying the meat of their former pets.

    What is interesting is to see the meat-loving, vegetarian-hating Ramsay become so affected by the horrendous slaughter of his pigs that he admits it would drive anyone to vegetarianism.

    And regarding comments above, one of the reasons I became a vegan is because that diet is better for the environment. The leading cause of deforestation is to provide grazing land and soy farms to raise cattle (factory farmed cattle eat a diet of soy and corn, which is unnatural for them, but it’s cheap).

    Also, I don’t have the figures handy, but it takes something like thirty times more water to raise a pound of beef than to grow a pound of vegetables. You can save more water by becoming a vegetarian than by never bathing again.

    And finally, chewing cud creates a lot of methane, which in combination with the deforestation is a leading cause of global warming.

    I’m not usually so preachy about my lifestyle, but hey, this post was about doing the right thing, right?

  19. #19 Ashley Moore
    January 22, 2008

    This reminds me of when I see those ‘No animal was harmed in the making of this movie’ messages at the end of Hollywood films.
    I always wonder, was the catering all tofu & lentils?!

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