‘It’s absolutely dire’: why UK chicken farmers want to end it

James Mottershead’s family have been in the chicken business for two decades, but nothing compares to where they are today. “Absolutely terrible” is the summary of him.

Based in Shropshire and operating out of six large sheds producing 1.3 million chickens a year, the business has been hit by a cocktail of pressures.

The high costs of feed, energy and packaging outweigh the price many farmers pay for their birds. The threat of bird flu is ever present. Cheaper imports and the rise of meatless alternatives have added another wave of pressure.

James Mottershead, Chairman of the NFU Poultry Industry. Photograph: Toby Lea/NFU

Versatile and relatively affordable, chicken is the UK’s most popular meat, with a level of consumption far exceeding beef, lamb or pork.

But these challenges are pushing many domestic producers to reduce the size of their herds, while others weigh whether or not to continue.

The Mottershead family has been producing broilers, young birds raised for meat, since expanding beyond farming and sheep farming in 2001.

The latest batch of 205,000 chickens is almost fully grown and destined for the shelves of the country’s largest supermarkets and smaller grocery stores in just over a week.

Many farmers are in a “really terrible position” and are taking losses with every bird, says Mottershead, who as chairman of the National Farmers Union (NFU) poultry board represents many of England’s chicken and turkey farmers and Welsh.

“It is getting to a point where these producers will have no choice but to close the doors and stop producing chickens until things like energy start to pick up a better footing and are not tied to a contract, with high energy costs. “, said. he says.

“Once you’re locked into a contract, you have to honor it.”

A free range egg farm in Suffolk.
Free range chickens on an egg farm in Suffolk. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

He and his fellow farmers are getting paid more for their birds than before, but he says the “live weight” price is tied to the cost of feed and doesn’t account for higher energy bills.

It has risen from about 95 pence per kilogram before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 to about £1.05/kg currently, an increase of 11%. This comes at a time when the price of feed, which accounts for nearly three-quarters of input costs for poultry production, has increased by 20-30% in the last two years and energy costs per kilowatt have multiplied by five.

While some of the government’s bird flu restrictions have recently been lifted, allowing poultry and other poultry to return outdoors, many other pressures have not eased.

The price of animal feed skyrocketed, along with energy bills, after the invasion of Russia, and there is little sign these costs are coming down again.

Chicken producers have few options to reduce their energy costs: poultry houses need to be lit and heated, as well as ventilated with large fans, to keep the birds cool and ensure they have oxygen.

a whole raw chicken
The UK imported 742,000 tonnes of poultry meat from the EU in 2022. Photo: Floortje/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Farmers feel left behind by the government’s energy-intensive industries exemption scheme, which subsidizes bills for eligible manufacturers.

“Poultry are on their own,” says Mottershead. “A processing factory can get relief on its electricity bills because it is considered to be energy intensive, but a poultry farm uses equally high levels of energy. Keep in mind that all of these farms have modern, energy-efficient equipment.”

In addition to the eye-popping bills, rising interest rates have added pressure on growers with mortgages or those who borrowed to invest in facilities and equipment.

“British poultry farming is on the edge,” warns the British Poultry Council.

“The drive to keep food affordable in exceptional market conditions where the cost of production is not repaid through the market is making poultry businesses unviable,” says industry body chief executive Richard Griffiths. .

The UK is now about two-thirds self-sufficient in poultry, according to the NFU. Britain is a net importer of white poultry meat, particularly buyers’ favorite breast fillets, and has been looking abroad for markets to export the dark meat, including thighs and thighs, and offal.

However, British diners’ appetite for chicken is not expected to abate any time soon, with the industry fearing that cheaper imports could fill the gaps on supermarket shelves.

Trade figures highlight a small but significant increase in the number of European poultry brought into Britain last year.

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A broiler chicken raised for its meat.
A broiler chicken raised for its meat. Photograph: Sarah Richardson/Alamy

The EU exported 742,000 tonnes of poultry meat to the UK in 2022, an increase of 2.3% on the previous year, according to figures from the European Commission, making Britain the bloc’s top export destination. Meanwhile, UK poultry exports to the EU fell by almost 25% last year, falling to just over 208,000 tonnes, down from almost 275,000 tonnes in 2021.

British agriculture has warned of the dangers of relying on imports, with the NFU blaming the recent salad shortage on the UK’s winter reliance on imported fruit and vegetables, which left it particularly exposed to “shock weather events”. .

Mottershead is calling on the government to bring the poultry supply chain together to discuss how to share the burden on farmers.

“We are not market makers; we are price takers,” he says. “The market dictates the price that the consumer has to pay.”

Mottershead adds: “Ministers need to act and bring processors and retailers into a room to determine what happened in the broiler sector and whether money was transferred or where it was held.

“We need retailers to start showing that they value the UK poultry industry and will pay a sustainable price for those birds.”

This means consumers would have to agree to pay more for food, a difficult request during a cost-of-living crisis and annual food price inflation of almost 20%.

Tindle's meatless chicken in a wrap.
Tindle’s meatless chicken in a wrap. Photography: Georgie Eats @georgieeats

Beyond all these challenges, there may be one more problem facing poultry producers: meatless products hoping to steal the crown from chicken as the nation’s favorite protein.

Tindle, which calls itself “plant-based chicken”, has just launched its breaded meat substitutes in 350 Morrisons stores, following a successful trial by Veganuary.

Made from wheat and soy protein, as well as coconut oil, it contains just nine ingredients, including sunflower oil and natural flavors, and is free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to its manufacturer, the food technology company Next Gen. Foods, based in Singapore.

Available for a year in hospitality venues, company co-founders Timo Recker and Andre Menezes want to bring their products, which include chicken wings, nuggets and popcorn, to a broader audience in the UK.

“Wherever there’s chicken, there’s got to be Tindle,” says Recker at the London launch of the retail range, where servers walk past with platters of burritos, burgers and katsu curries.

“We need to alter chicken,” says the 37-year-old businessman, adding that it’s the biggest meat category, the fastest growing, and can be eaten by people of most religions.

Recker had hoped to take over running his family’s German meat-processing business, specializing in foods like schnitzel, but has instead pursued a career developing meat substitutes.

Tindle's Chicken Burger, but no chicken.
Tindle’s Chicken Burger, but no chicken. Photography: Georgie Eats @georgieeats

Believing such substitutes are an eco-friendly alternative, Tindle says she’s targeting meat eaters and diners who are open to trying new things.

It says its products contain similar levels of protein to chicken, but at a cost: between £3 and £4 for a two-serving pack, though the company says the price will come down over time.

“It’s actually quite nice and has that meaty texture,” says Chris Sheen, 33, sampling a plate of nuggets for the first time at the launch. “I can imagine being in Soho at 3am happily eating this.”

“I eat meat, but this really could have fooled me,” says Cui Huang, 27. “The texture is just right and it doesn’t feel weird like other brands of fake chicken.”

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