Let's keep it natural

MY Star column two weeks ago on the subject of Bernard Matthews's troubles produced some interesting responses.All those I saw backed my condemnation of factory farming.

MY Star column two weeks ago on the subject of Bernard Matthews's troubles produced some interesting responses.

All those I saw backed my condemnation of factory farming. Most assumed I was vegetarian - which I'm not. In fact, I think it's important to realise that you don't have to be veggie to find the industrialisation of meat offensive.

Like reader Steve Willis, I like meat, but only if I know it's been humanely reared (see panel).

I'd have to be literally starving before giving my trade to a McDonald's or KFC - and then I'd subsist on bread, chips and salad.

I was vegetarian for eight years. Then I realised that if no one ate meat, there would fairly quickly be no pigs, sheep or cattle, and that's not a situation I could face happily.

On the other hand, if factory farming was the only farming, I would turn vegetarian again.

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I actually ate turkey at Christmas, the first I'd had in probably 20 years. It was Suffolk-bred and reared, outdoors on Chris Mobbs's family farm, and very good it was.

It had little in common with any Bernard Matthews produce, or any other broiler fowl.

In case the Holton bird-flu outbreak hasn't put you off supermarket turkey, let me give you a few food facts.

On most poultry “farms” day-old chicks are put into huge windowless sheds with many thousands of others. Lighting is kept deliberately dim to prevent aggressive behaviour in the crowded conditions and some birds have their beaks cut off to prevent them pecking those around them.

Even so, many get their eyes pecked out. They suffer ulcers on their legs and feet from standing in each others' excrement.

Wild turkeys live for about ten years. These intensively-bred chicks would not survive in the wild. Their bodies grow too big too fast for their legs to hold them up properly.

At between 12 and 21 weeks they are packed off to the abattoir in crates. Those, that is, that have not already died in the sheds because they never learn to reach the food and water points, from disease, or simply because their hearts or other organs can't cope with their unnatural bulk.

Even without bird flu, this is the fate of up to 15 per cent of the 22million turkeys produced in Britain each year.

Most of this applies equally to chicken - except that for them the horror is briefer, as they tend to be slaughtered at six to seven weeks.

Because ducks are commonly seen living wild, you might assume that duck meat is both healthier and more humane than chicken or turkey. It isn't.

Unless labelled otherwise, any duck you buy is almost certain to have been factory-farmed.

Government rules allow seven full-grown ducks per square metre in barns - barely room for them to turn round.

Ducks in the wild are very family-orientated; barn-reared ducks never see their parents.

Barn-reared ducks are not allowed water, except for drinking, because it would raise stinking ammonia from the heavily-soiled floor.

There are a lot of ducks in Suffolk. You might have seen them by the river. You might have fed them at the pond.

But I bet you've never seen 12,000 of them all in one place. Not unless you've been in one of those sheds they call a “farm”.

I didn't pick the figure 12,000 at random. It happens to be the number they are proposing to produce at a time in a planned “duck unit” at Mendlesham Green.

Villagers are opposing the plan on grounds of a feared public nuisance.

They can't stop it on grounds of nuisance to the ducks - because that, though horrific, is perfectly legal.

I ASKED the butcher the other day: “Is your pork free-range?”

The answer was not helpful.

“Well, it all is nowadays, isn't it?” he said. “You see them running around in the fields everywhere.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, there are a lot of farms in Suffolk where you do see pigs trotting about, and a fine sight it is.

But I also know of at least one “farm” in the county where hundreds of pigs are born, fatten and die in a windowless, overcrowded concrete barn. In fact, nationally, that's how 95 per cent of pork products are produced.

So I took my trade to another local butcher, who sells only free-range meat and can tell you exactly which farm it comes from.

There are those in the farming industry who will try to convince you that pigs are happier indoors. Not much rooting and snuffling to be done on a concrete floor, though, is there? Especially if you barely have room to turn round.

I think John Webster, professor of animal husbandry at Bristol University, is more honest, and he should know what he's talking about. He says factory farming is “in both magnitude and severity the single most severe, systematic example of man's inhumanity to another sentient animal”.

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