The monster and the chicken

UK TV's most unlikely hero, the shambling Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has just televised his head-to-head with retail monster Tesco (for US readers, roughly our equivalent of WAL*MART, though it's Tesco's rival ASDA that actually belongs to the big W). (See Channel 4 website.)

Last year Mr F-W made an impressive series of programmes that persuaded quite a few people to move from buying 'standard' (i.e. lowest welfare legally possible) chickens to those with improved living conditions. Since then, some UK supermarkets have ousted standard chickens entirely from their shelves, or at least have the aim of moving to a minimum standard of 'Freedom Food' chickens, which are still indoor reared, but have much better living conditions.

However, Tesco, Britain's largest, most powerful and most aggressive supermarket, has refused to countenance moving away from standard chickens. In the show, F-W goes up against the might of Tesco by trying to raise the issue of chicken welfare at their AGM. Despite some dirty tricks from Tesco (suddenly slapping a £86,000 bill on him for postage), he gets his motion on the agenda. It fails - but he gets around 20% support, unusual for corporate investors on an issue like this.

What's Tesco's response? An appalling interview where they claim high standards of welfare and squarely put the blame on... the customer. Yes, it seems Tesco only sells these poor creatures because customers demand cheap meat. These are weasel words. Of course customers want cheap food. Ideally they would like it if Tesco gave all their food away free. But are Tesco rushing to give everything away because their customers would like it? Erm, no.

The conditions in which these chickens are raised is entirely down to Tesco, NOT the customer. If Tesco decided tomorrow to move to a minimum standard of Freedom Food, many of their customers would cheer. And so big is Tesco's buying power that they could probably do so with only a small increase on the price of a chicken.

The fact is, Tesco has got used to using chicken as a loss leader to compete with other supermarkets. This has nothing to do with customer demand, and everything to do with Tesco's power games.