How chicken became the cheapest dinner-time option
As the price of poultry falls to €3, Celine Naughton asks the experts if cut-price chicken is sustainable
Supermarket shelves may be groaning under the weight of cheap chicken, but when it comes to sustainable food prices, are we putting the chicken before the egg?
With supermarket promotions offering whole chickens for around €3, and the average regular price of poultry at its lowest in years, it's no wonder Ireland has taken to the bird as its new national dish. But is there fowl play at work in bringing a healthy bird from farm to fork for the price of a tub of ice cream or a packet of hand-cooked crisps?
Bord Bia statistics show we consume 27kg of poultry per person per year in this country, 5pc more than we did a year ago and far more than the 18kg of beef or less than 10kg of lamb we eat a year. Price is a clear factor - even without the cut-price supermarket offers, the average retail price of chicken is €5.30 a kilo, almost half the price of lamb at €10.50 and less than both beef at €8.90 and pork at €6.70. And the reason it's so cheap? The answer is, literally, chicken feed.
"The price of meat is dictated by the price of feed and chicken is the quickest converter from feed to meat," says Bord Bia's poultry sector manager Peter Duggan. "It takes 2kg of meat to make 1kg of poultry. Beef is four or five times as much. Coupled with that, feed prices are currently at their lowest levels in years, thanks largely to bumper crops of spring barley and winter wheat.
"As well as being the most affordable choice, especially for young families, chicken is also versatile. It's quick and convenient, and it's perceived as a healthy, lean source of protein."
A quick check around the big supermarket chains showed chickens on offer for €3.25 for a 1.25kg whole bird (Aldi and Lidl) to €4 (medium chicken) in Tesco, €4.25 (medium, 1.6kg) Dunnes Stores and €5 (1.8kg) in Supervalu.
Organic farmer Ronan Byrne rears 350-400 free-range chickens a week on his Galway farm and sells them on market stalls and to high end restaurants, for €9-€12.50, depending on size.
"Comparing us with a large scale producer is like apples and oranges, but you have to ask how chickens can be produced for €3. It just doesn't seem right," he says.
"That's an animal you're talking about - a whole, functioning, living thing. Our chickens run around in the pastures outside for about 10 to 12 weeks. That's 70 days, about twice the length of time it takes to rear mass-produced chickens, and it gives a different taste because the meat is matured longer.
"I'm not here to lecture people on what they should and shouldn't eat. I'm not a born-again foodie, I'm a farmer. And I know that Irish chickens are produced to a very high standard, on Bord Bia-approved farms. It's the same protein, although there is a huge difference in flavour and texture, but it's not just that. People don't value the animal when it's that cheap. How much of a €3 chicken ends up in the bin? It's a waste of resources. Those who spend €9 on a chicken tend to eat the whole carcass.
"I just don't know how a chicken can land on a plate for so little. There must be no room for profit for the producers."
Ah, but there is. Manor Farm, the largest poultry processor in Ireland with an annual turnover of €240m, employs 815 staff, 650 of whom are based here, and works with 168 local chicken farmers. According to CEO Vincent Carton, the average poultry farmer has 72,000 birds with seven cycles a year.
"He or she earns on average €105,000 a year gross, and when you take costs out of that, it's €65,000 net. We've also recently given our farmers an increase, so that converts to an average €125,000 gross or €85,000 net income. We're a growth industry and we need new farmers all the time, so we invest in them."
But €3 a chicken? Surely that's not sustainable. In France, for instance a small 1kg chicken costs €7.50 in the supermarket, or €11.90 a kilo from an organic supplier, while in the UK, a 1.2kg chicken in Waitrose costs £4.39 (€5.95). In Italy, 1kg of chicken fillets costs €7.69.
"A German discounter took the hit on that recent promotion," says Vincent. "Other supermarkets do the same from time to time, but our farmers always get the same price, so they're not affected. Remember, such promotions are used to attract customers to a store, where they'll buy other things. It's a marketing strategy.
"Promotions aside, chicken is still one of the most affordable options on the menu of Irish households and it's not driven by price alone.
"A mum coming home after work with two hungry children spends 22 minutes getting food on the table: five minutes preparation time, 15 minutes cooking and two minutes to serve. What can you cook in that time?
"A ready meal, pizza - or chicken fillets. And mums will choose chicken fillets because they're the healthy option."
Manor Farm processes more than 850,000 chickens at its plant in Shercock, Co Cavan and sells to major supermarkets and local butchers in Ireland and supplied to the export market. "Mostly we sell chicken breasts in Ireland and the legs, wings, thighs and feet to China, the UK, Spain and Africa," says Vincent.
"The only time Irish people really buy drumsticks and wings are June, July and August. Outside the barbecue months, forget about it."
Chicken this week
Whole Chicken Medium €4
Whole Chicken 1.2kg €3.25
Whole Chicken 1.2kg €3.25
Whole Chicken 1.8kg €5
Whole Chicken 1.6kg €4.25