THE Co-operative Group has defended its poultry product practices in the wake of the national launch of an RSPCA campaign aimed at raising welfare standards of chicken sold in UK supermarkets.
The charity says that most of the 855 million meat chickens reared in the UK every year suffer unacceptable conditions and has set up an online petition to pressurise retailers to stock only higher welfare produce.
However the Group ? which is not being criticised by the animal rights organisation ? points out that all its fresh own-label whole birds are produced to its own high welfare ?Elmwood' standard, which will incorporate all Co-operative fresh chicken by March this year.?
Debbie Robinson, the Group's Director of Food Retail Marketing, said the society had been working closely with producers to allow conversion to take place over a period of time.?
She said: "We carefully selected a small group of dedicated British farmers to embrace the higher Elmwood standard and have been working closely with them to enable us to convert more farms to the higher standards.?
"The Elmwood chickens live in a more natural environment which allows them to thrive, with more space to move around in, perch and rest, with lots of natural daylight and a vegetarian, high cereal diet.?
"By nurturing the chickens in a calm and sunlit environment and allowing them to live longer, more relaxed lives, we can produce perfectly tender, moist and flavoursome meat."?
The Co-operative also sells a Freedom Food free range chicken under the Truly Irresistible label, as well as an own-label organic chicken and, over the recent festive season, the Group became the first major retailer to convert all its fresh turkey and turkey crowns to British Freedom Food.?
It was also the first to sell Freedom Food-accredited British fresh duck in 2005.?
The RSPCA campaign to improve the welfare of British chickens is being supported by celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, while the charity took full-page adverts in several national newspapers to urge retailers to sell only higher welfare produce by 2010.
Dr Marc Cooper, RSPCA farm animal scientist, commented: "If people knew how the average chicken was treated before it ended up as their Sunday roast, they would probably be disgusted.
"Currently, some supermarkets are selling chicken meat for as little as £ 2 per kilo ? this can be less than it costs to produce the bird. Selling chicken so cheaply doesn't provide farmers with enough money to enable or encourage them to rear their birds to standards the RSPCA finds acceptable.?
"Everyone has a responsibility to ensure chickens are reared to high standards ? the retailer, shopper and farmer. We are asking supermarkets to stop selling standard chicken and shoppers to stop buying it."
Added Dr Cooper: "Chicken labelled Freedom Food, free-range or organic is a better alternative. We are asking shoppers to demonstrate that there is a demand for higher welfare chicken by signing our petition and by showing they are willing to pay a little bit more money for a bird that's had a better life."
The RSPCA hopes shoppers will insist on higher welfare chicken in the same way that millions of people are shunning eggs from battery cages. Almost 38 per cent of eggs sold in the UK are now from non-caged hens as consumers protest against battery farming practices of laying hens.?
However the campaigning group says only about five per cent of chickens reared in the UK for meat are kept in higher welfare conditions.
? For further details on the RSPCA's campaign, visit: www.supportchickennow.co.uk.