Planet Chicken – Hattie Ellis

(Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99)

If the human race is wiped out, it will be because of a combination of stupidity and greed. Such is the dismal story of folly in Hattie Ellis’s book, which is subtitled The Shameful Story of the World’s Favourite Bird. It makes tragic and infuriating reading. You would have thought farmers, politicians and big business would have learnt from what seems to be a near squeak over BSE. But, no. The author recounts the reckless use of antibiotics in propping up practices which should not exist in the first place, and how chickens are slaughtered at a mere six weeks (it should be six months), their short and brutal lives spent being pumped with food. Only 4% avoid this fate. The less damaged are sold whole; the more damaged are made into ready meals. Big business gets the bucks, politicians get the votes and we, the public, get this dangerous rubbish at bargain prices.

It doesn’t have to be like this. An Italian Adolfo Sansolini actually went on hunger strike to improve the lot of battery hens by trying to make small cages illegal, and by 2010, 300 million hens will have a happier life as a result. Three English farms Sheepdrove Farm, The Real Meat Company and Pipers Farm treat their chickens humanely, according to the author. It’s worth buying from them because you can’t trust what you read on the label. ‘Free Range’ means that the hens could, just about, reach open air; ‘Traditional Free Range’ means they are kept in what is considered a humane density of 12 to a square metre. Only ‘Total Freedom Free Range’ means that they can get out of doors.

Planet Chicken is dismal reading, but read it we must. Look out for our forthcoming feature on hens, out on May 31