7th, 8th, 9th January, 2008, Channel 4, 9pm
Written by Robert Dingle
The horse, the cat, the bull and even the donkey are generally larger in size and have a more robust constitution, more energy, strength and spiritedness than they do under our roofs.
Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality
Hugh Fernley Whittingstall’s Chicken Out campaign is a call to adopt a more ethical approach towards poultry farming with regards to meeting increasing consumer demands within the market. In light of recent success, over the past several years, getting people to switch eggs from battery hens to free range (27% of egg production now coming from free range farms), Whittingstall’s experiment addresses the pressure poultry farmers are under to produce domestic fowl as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
Based in a shed in Axeminster, Whittingstall’s Chicken Out experiment recreates the conditions of battery farmed chickens in one end, and free-range at the other (both following regulations and guidelines set by the British agriculture ministry). Everyday the experiment was filmed and recorded, from the weeks of preparation involved in installing equipment up to the moment when the chickens would be ready to go to the slaughter house. What the experiment showed was that intensively reared chickens often meant birds with shorter lives, living in cramped conditions without ever seeing natural daylight. On top of this they would commonly develop sever injuries and disabilities, associated with unnaturally fast weight gain and restricted movement.1 In contrast, the free-range chickens experienced none of these illnesses, playing with brightly colored toys and spending between 8 – 10 hours outside everyday.
Throughout the experiment Whittingstall invited local residents from Axeminster, supermarket executives, members of the press, poultry farmers and a BBC television crew to come and experience the conditions within his experiment.
This type of inequality, relating to the conditions in which poultry is farmed (intensive and free-range), can be related directly to the economic and informative inequality among consumers. This dialectic offers Whittingstall the basis for his inquiry and relates to a general understanding of the term ‘inequality’, which Jean-Jacques Rousseau provides us with.
The human species has, I think, two sorts of inequality: the one I call natural or physical because it is established by nature, and consists of differences in age, health, physical strength, and traits of the mind or soul; the other kind we can call moral or political inequality. This inequality consists of the various privileges that some persons enjoy at the expense of others – such as being wealthier, more honored, and more powerful than others.
Rousseau, Discourses on Inequality
Supermarkets currently offer poultry farmers 3pence per chicken and if a healthy chicken does not make the correct weight it is automatically slaughtered. Responding to consumer demands, supermarkets are forcing poultry farmers to raise more birds, in worse conditions, for less money. Whittingstall believes that, not only are the production methods unethical and the quality of meat much lower, but the only way for change is to alter consumer demands, thus forcing supermarkets to adopt a policy in line with consumer attitudes.
Whittingstall acts to identify a current issue that is out of the public consciousness. He creates numerous campaigns to bring it into the public eye: working with locals in Axeminister to provide them with chickens for their allotments. Demonstrating how to be more economic with poultry (making two separate meals from one bird). Implementing changes to convert the suffering cafeteria of Axeminister’s largest employer into a green canteen. Demonstrating the stark contrast in current poultry farming methods. Inviting all Axeminister residents to a public talk about the experiment and current poultry production methods in the UK. Initiating a campaign to convert Axeminister into the first free-range town.
Whittingstall, in Ranciere’s term, acts in a sense, to re-distribute the sensible by indentifying an issue, creating a public and giving it a voice within the public sphere. His campaign has acted to change the public sphere, not alone but through a joint effort with Jamie Oliver, they have managed to influence specific supermarkets into making agreements regarding better labeling and setting dates to stop endorsing intensively farmed poultry.
This is chef acting activist. As Walter Benjamin identifies the author as producer to be an ‘operating writer’, whose mission ‘is not to report but to struggle, not to play spectator but to intervene actively.’ We see Whittingstall discarding his apron, Grande Toque and Judge Sabatier to become an animal rights activist, protesting, educating and demonstrating for a cause with a need to change.