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Not so "bootiful": the death knell for factory farming?

Friday 09 February 2007

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard, appalled at what seems to be yet another cover-up at the doomed Bernard Matthews turkey plant in Suffolk, asks if this could mark the beginning of the end for the broiler bird industry

THE BRITISH food industry seems this morning to be on the verge of yet another disaster caused by factory farming methods and yet another cover-up. Whether or not the politicians and civil servants conspired to hide the fact that turkey carcasses had been imported from an already infected plant in Hungary will lead the headlines for days to come. But one thing is sure: the British public is sick and tired of being lied to.

It must be twenty or perhaps even thirty years since I wrote a story about the hapless British turkey, a story which attracted considerable interest and, at the same time, reflected the different attitudes of our national Press.

factory farm turkeys
Factory farm turkeys
Photo: Compassion in World Farming

The story revealed that turkey cocks had been bred so fat that they could no longer perform their, hmm, masculine duties: their legs were too weak for them to cover a hen bird so, in future, the vast majority of our Christmas dinners would arrive via artificial insemination.

The pop newspapers thought this was highly amusing: old gobbler literally couldn't get his leg over! The broadsheets took a more reflective view, pondering the significance of the fact that man had fundamentally changed the lifestyle of an innocent creature - and made himself responsible for it very existence in the future.

Decades later, sadly, factory farming has not only continued but has grown to be a multi-national business. The outbreak of deadly H5N1 avian 'flu in Suffolk has cast an unwelcome spotlight on the business life of Bernard Matthews, who has allegedly made a personal fortune worth some £350 million from the turkeys he made famous with his "bootiful" TV ads spelled out in his glorious Norfolk accent.

The fact of the matter is that no caged animal lives a "bootiful" life. They are commodities, not living creatures, and millions of them live in horrendously cramped conditions, being pumped up like balloons to put on weight quickly, and most of them live and die in enclosed sheds without ever seeing the sun.

Now I am sure that Matthews obeys every law that our legal system imposes on battery bird production. He is far too smart a businessman to be taken to court for legal infringements and I am sure his thousands of employees scrupulously live up to the letter of the law (except, of course, the two men caught playing baseball with live birds).

And his well-oiled PRE machine was in overdrive this week playing down the fact that the particular strain of 'flu which caused the cull of 160,000 turkeys in Suffolk was exactly the same as the one which caused similar devastation in a Matthews-owned plant in Hungary. There had been no contact between the two plants, either human of vehicular, they insisted.

...the British public has become deeply suspicious of our mass-producing food industry

But the fact that all the rules have been adhered to does not over-rule the greater fact that such the rules in the UK (and presumably in Hungary) are far too lenient. For me, it is a decades-old disgrace that a country which frequently takes the moral high ground allows living creatures to be born, bred and slaughtered in such inhumane conditions. The Austrian Parliament, which if often accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies, voted unanimously for a total ban on such farming three years ago.

To quote Winston Churchill, this is not the end for the broiler industry in this country, nor is it even the beginning of the end. But judging by the reaction of much of the media this week, it could be the end of the beginning.

Unlike the tabloids which laughed at the impotent turkey cock twenty years ago, the British public has become deeply suspicious of our mass-producing food industry, helped along by such celebrity chefs as Jamie Oliver, who famously attacked Bernard Matthews' Turkey Twizzlers and had them taken off the menu at thousands of schools.

Until the Suffolk outbreak, I am sure that few people realised that as many as 160,000 living animals could be crammed into a single shed. The likelihood for disease in such quarters is bound to be high and one wonders how many antibiotics are used to keep it at bay. And how many hormones are used to boost growth? Do these chemicals end up in the humans who eat the wretched creatures?

As British farmers cut down on the production of beef and lamb, there will be thousands of acres of land freed for other use. Why not have millions of birds - chickens, geese, ducks and guinea fowl as well as turkeys - scratching about in the wide open spaces just as nature intended.

At least they would have some natural life before they end up on our tables. They would be healthier and taste better too. It would take some time to bring about but all it needs is a lot more public pressure - and market forces. Millionaire Mr Mathews' none-too-bootiful turkeys, and the lies that have been told this week, could trigger that public revolt.

Your views:

  • With the risk of avian flu authorities are suggesting farmers keep their birds inside, I am sure if we asked the millions of hapless battery chickens their opinion they would much rather be outside scratching around having dust baths and to hell with the risk.

    George Robson - Auckland, New Zealand

  • This just confirms my long-held views on the farming methods of today, though I remain stunned that so many customers put price above the reality of what they are consuming. My turkey eggs will be in the incubator next week, the beginning of a tasty, healthy and happy Christmas dinner for us in 2007 as the birds will be raised in the same way as my delicious free-range hens and just over the wall from my pair of ewes raising tasty lambs! We're going back to basics here and it tastes wonderful!!

    Jacqueline - Aigues-Vives, France

  • It is time to review the farming methods used by people unconcerned with the suffering and inhumane treatment they bring upon livestock in pursuit of their greed and profit from such activity. BSE and other problems I feel sure will be proven to be the direct result of mankind's abuse of animals who are often kept in unsanitary and inhumane conditions. When people begin to reap the rewards of such treatment fuelled by greed they may just begin to question the wisdom of factory farming that results in the pre-packaged meat that they buy without a thought of its origin.

    Let us hope that events such as this will really begin to spell the end of factory farming but I suspect that it really is too much to hope for. Does the average parent know about the levels of antibiotics and hormones that are administered to animals that ends up as food on the table for consumption by their loved ones? Do they consider the long term affects of consuming such food and does anybody really know? The level of ignorance is astounding.

    Gordon Matthews - Canterbury

  • Would you treat your child or mother like factory farmed animals? It is only good fortune that placed your soul in your body and not in that of a wretched distressed turkey in Bernard Matthews' farm. To do nothing is shameful. DO SOMETHING NOW don't turn your back - it could have been you.

    Judie Everett - Hadlow, Kent

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