Here is the next of our “bonus material” for Channel 4’s The Great British Food Fight, an interview with my other “foodie god”, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
People in Britain are eating better now than ever before. What’s behind that revolution?
It’s hard to say, really. There’s certainly more interest in the provenance of food, in where it comes from. I think for a long time people just thought ‘Whatever people are selling must be all right’. But I think people are increasingly mistrustful of the industrial food machine, and want to know a little bit more about where their food is coming from. As far as I’m concerned, all the stuff I’ve done at River Cottage over the years is about emphasising where your food comes from, and encouraging people to grow a bit of their own food. The idea of people taking a bit more responsibility about where their food comes from is great. I think you get more pleasure from your food if you know a bit more about it.
What’s your ideal British menu?
The ideal British menu changes with the seasons. One of the great things about British food and our climate is that we have really distinct seasons, and really distinct seasonal moments. Some things come into season just for a few weeks, like asparagus in May or purple sprouting broccoli in March and April. That seasonality is at the heart of British food. So the perfect British menu depends upon what time of year it is.
Do you have a favourite British chef?
Yeah, I should think Fergus Henderson at St John restaurant in Smithfield. He epitomises a commitment to source food wisely and seasonally. And also another thing I like about him is a kind of holistic approach. If you want to show respect to an animal, you look after it well when it’s alive and when you’re using it for meat, you use every part of it. So he’s full of recipes for pig’s trotters and lamb shanks and that sort of thing.
Speaking of chefs and the provenance of food, you have said that you suspect some top chefs don’t use free range chicken. Is that really true?
I’m not going to name any names, but I know that some chefs don’t use free range chicken. The sort of arrogance about it is that they think they’re better than their ingredients. The sign of a great chef is to recognise that you’re never better than your ingredients, and that if your ingredients are really good, you don’t have to do a great deal to make the food great.
How can people go about buying the best produce?
It depends where you are. Some people say they live in cities so they don’t have access to local, seasonal food. Actually a lot of cities now have weekly farmers’ markets, so there is fantastic produce there that is grown in the outlying areas. That’s a very old tradition, bringing the produce into town. Of course, you can shop seasonally and locally to a degree even within the supermarket – it’s just a question of having an eye for the best produce, and choosing stuff that’s in season and grown in Britain. Why choose beans in the middle of winter that have been flown halfway around the world? They’re not going to be particularly fresh. Fruit that’s been imported from half-way round the world is never going to be properly ripe. So it’s an issue of quality as well as sustainability.
You’ve got famously wide-ranging tastes. What food don’t you like?
I can’t stand a fried egg if the white around the yolk is still transparent. I have to flip it over. That’s pretty much it. I’m open to anything really.
The Chicken Out campaign has been a phenomenal success. Have you been taken aback by the scale of it?
Yes. Obviously the whole point of the exercise was to make a significant difference to the chicken people are choosing, and to the way that chicken is produced, and we’ve done that. The percentage of the market for fresh chicken that’s now higher welfare has gone up from about four or five per cent to 15 per cent. So we’ve effectively tripled the uptake of higher welfare chicken. But, if you look at it, 85 per cent of British chicken is still intensively farmed. We don’t want to stop there. So our new programme isn’t just an update, it’s about taking the Chicken Out fight to another level. It’s basically about taking on Britain’s biggest retailer, Tesco, and trying to get them to change – from the bottom up – the kind of chicken they’re selling.
Why have Tesco’s been so intransigent compared to other retailers?
It’s strange, isn’t it? Tesco are fighting a price war with ASDA, basically, and chicken has always been one of the main tools of the price war. It’s like asking two big nations to give up their favourite nuclear weapon. Tesco aren’t sure how they’ll be able to fight the price war without chicken, because they’ve depended on it for so long. They’ve been offering two chickens for £5 for nearly two years. ASDA introduced the £1.99 chicken. Tesco at one point said ‘We’re not going to go there, it’s not good for British poultry farmers’, and Sir Terry Leahy himself said they weren’t going to try and match that. And then they did a U-turn and did match the £1.99 chicken. Even as I speak there are Tesco stores in the UK selling chickens for £1.99. The problem is chicken is one of those value items that the consumer responds to when it’s sold very cheap. That’s precisely the kind of habit we’re trying to break. We’re trying to get supermarkets to break the habit of heavily discounting chicken, and we’re trying to get consumers to break the habit of buying heavily discounted chicken. That’s why we went straight to Tesco’s head office and tried to get them to change. They’re aware of the follow-up programme, they’re aware the campaign’s going on and isn’t going to go away. They have now introduced a Freedom Foods bird – they’re the last of the main supermarkets to offer an RSPCA-approved Freedom Foods chicken on their shelves. I hope Tesco customers will respond to that. I hope they’ll buy that product because the one thing I can say is that if Tesco customers continue to choose high welfare chickens, Tesco will stock more of them. And that’s what we need to happen.
You adopted a rather unusual tactic with regard to the Tesco campaign, didn’t you?
I’m not the first person to have done it, but yeah, I bought a share in Tesco, so that as a shareholder I could take a resolution to the Tesco AGM. The resolution was quite straightforward. Tesco make a lot of claims on their websites and in their literature about animal welfare, in particular they claim to endorse the ‘five freedoms’ of animal welfare. My contention is that standard chicken production, and the kind of chicken that Tesco sells, is not compatible with the five freedoms. So that was the basis of my resolution. In the end we persuaded almost 20 per cent of the Tesco shareholders to either vote for the resolution or abstain. That’s £3.4 billion-worth of Tesco shares voting for immediate action on chicken welfare.
Did it stick in the craw having to invest in the company to make your point?
Not particularly. It doesn’t mean I have to start shopping there. And it was only one share.
The new programme doesn’t just deal with the intransigence of supermarkets. You’re still trying to win Hayley over to your cause as well.
Yes. Hayley is great, because she represents so many shoppers on a tight budget who can’t resist the offer of two chickens for a fiver. In the end, we felt the best way forward with Hayley was to take her to see a Freedom Foods farm, so that she would know that, if she was prepared to pay 70 or 80p extra for her chicken, she could have a bird that’s raised to RSPCA Freedom Food standards. I don’t want to spoil one of the high points of the show, but we’ll see what happens. You can see what Hayley decides to do after she’s visited a standard shed and an RSPCA shed.
What else is going on in the programme?
We also had a very interesting opportunity to visit a very well-respected and senior figure in the poultry industry – a guy called Charles Bourns – who had decided to upgrade his own system to RSPCA Freedom Foods. And he was doing it for commercial reasons, really, because he felt he could make more of a profit. Because one of the key things about the supermarket price war is that it’s made life so tough for the chicken farmer. My gripe has never been with the chicken farmer. British poultry farmers will raise whatever birds the supermarket asks them to, or whatever birds the British consumer is prepared to buy. And they’ll do it to the best of their ability. So it was interesting to get involved with a major producer, and see them transform their operation. And again, here’s someone who had a certain view, and thought he wasn’t going to be that impressed with Freedom Foods, and thought the differences would be negligible, but in the end he really was impressed. His mortality rate for his flock came down from around three per cent to a little over one per cent. I said to him ‘If you get your mortality rate down below one per cent I’ll send you a case of champagne.’ And, on the next crop, in one of his sheds, he got the mortality rate down below one per cent, which is probably about as low as it can go. So I did indeed send him a case of champagne. That was great, it was really nice to have the perspective of an industry insider.
What’s the reaction been from the poultry industry as a whole?
It’s interesting. Initially there was a certain amount of hostility from poultry farmers, because they felt we were exposing their industry, and they felt that they looked like the bad guys. But I’ve always gone to some trouble to say that as far as I’m concerned poultry farmers aren’t the bad guys. Most poultry farmers, off the record, tell me they’d like to reduce the stocking density of their flocks and improve the welfare standards of their birds. But if they do, they simply can’t hit the price points that the supermarkets are setting. But if they come out and say that vociferously, the supermarket won’t buy from them. It’s a difficult position that they’re in. But we have tried to represent them fairly, which was why it was nice to be able to film with Charles Bourns, and hear things from an industry perspective.
How has the current financial turmoil affected the campaign?
It can’t make it any easier for the campaign, because people see two chickens for a fiver and think ‘that’ll help balance the weekly food budget’. But we feel that the supporters of the campaign are resolute. They now know how these birds are produced – they’ve seen it as a result of our programmes, and they’re sticking to their guns. The uptake of higher welfare poultry continues to increase.