They are the ultimate 21st-century food - quick, easy and highly processed. But if you knew about the high percentage of skin, the water, and the pulped carcasses that go into some of them, would you be so keen to reach into the freezer for chicken nuggets? In a major investigation, Felicity Lawrence travels to processing plants in Britain and Thailand to uncover the disturbing truth about every kid's favourite food
Article history Europe is big on breasts. The Japanese prefer thighs, dark and gamey ones. Feet are a bit of a fetish in China. Gizzards go to Russia. But smooth, damp slabs of white flesh are what we British buy when we want chicken. That leaves the carcasses, and skin, mountains and mountains of it - pale, flaccid, pimply, raw, ripped off by 100,000 shift workers' hands, from Thailand to Brazil, from the Netherlands to Norfolk. The skin goes around the world for chicken nuggets.
I am watching an army of small, perfectly formed nuggets march along a conveyor belt, with manufacturer Gary Stiles, at his factory in Wiltshire. He has spent his life in the meat trade. At one end of the factory line is a pulp of half-frozen meat and skin in a giant stainless-steel hopper. Minced and mixed beyond recognition, it is being extruded through a small tube on to metal plates. These press it into pale pink nugget shapes which then trundle on down the belt. Through a dust bath of flour and seasoning they go, before being lowered under a sheet of constantly pouring batter. Then on in juddering formation through a tray of scattered breadcrumbs and into a vast vat of boiling oil for 30 seconds.
As they emerge, workers in white coats, blue hairnets and white boots catch them, bag them in plastic, and post them back for the last rites. The belt carries them into a nitrogen tunnel to take them down to freezing and finally out into a cardboard box, labelled with his own brand Pure Organics For Georgia's Sake or Tesco organic chicken nuggets, according to the orders of the day.
Above the roar of machinery, Stiles explains that you need some skin to keep the nuggets succulent; 15% is about right, he reckons. Mixed in that proportion with breast and dark meat, it matches what you would get if you were eating a whole bird, and he knows exactly where his comes from. Like the rest of his meat, his skin is bought from two organic farms that he knows personally, one in England, one in Wales. Unlike some manufacturers, he won't use more skin than that, and he won't use mechanically recovered meat (MRM), which is obtained by pushing the carcass through a giant teabag-like screen to produce a slurry of protein, then bound back together with polyphosphates and gums. Nor does he use other additives.
Stiles likes to think that his nuggets, at £1.99 for 250g, are, like the beer, "reassuringly expensive". But the trouble is, once you've minced bits of a chicken to a pulp, that pulp could be anything from anywhere. With other manufacturers, sometimes it is. Recycled pet food, breasts injected with pig and cattle proteins, banned carcinogenic antibiotics - they've all been found by the authorities recently in chicken destined for processing.
Denatured and deracinated, the chicken nugget is a symbol of the way we eat now. It is the epitome of our 21st-century system of globalised, industrial food production.
Like much of our diet today, the nugget is processed so highly that its taste and texture depend as much on engineering and additives as on any raw ingredients, making it an easy way to disguise cheap or adulterated food. And just as the nugget's form is far removed from its contents, so we have become completely divorced from the source of those contents, from the animals that provide them and from the people who transform them. The nugget is, in fact, the product of a transnational chain so fragmented and complex that even those in the business do not fully understand how some parts of it work.
It depends on the industrialisation of livestock, on an endless supply of uniform factory birds to fit standardised factory machines. It depends, too, on the mass migration of workers, both legal and illegal, since adding the value to it requires an equally endless supply of low-value labour.
The rise of the nugget has been dizzying. We bought 42 million packs of them - that's £79m worth, or 21,000 tonnes - in the UK last year, just to eat at home, according to analysts Taylor Nelson Sofres. British adults also ate 73 million meals of them away from home in the same period. Children probably ate more. Served in school dining halls, fast-food outlets, at hospital bedsides, and on the tables of harassed parents, nuggets have become ubiquitous. Mass production has created a homogeneity in our diets at a time when the origins of our food are more varied than ever. If you want to know what goes into your nuggets, you need to look to the commodity markets, exchange rates and tariffs. The label is not the place to find out.
One story earlier this year highlighted just how little we know about what lies inside the golden breadcrumb coating. When Leicestershire trading standards received a complaint from a member of the public about the quality of some nuggets, they decided to test 21 samples from 17 different shops, including the major supermarkets. In one-third of the samples, the label was misleading about the nugget's meat content. One pack of nuggets contained only 16% meat, 30% less than it claimed. (And skin, of course, counts as "meat"). The trading standards officials are unable to identify the brands involved for legal reasons. Instead, they gave a warning to the worst offender. Subsequent tests recently have shown that the manufacturer has not changed its ways. Look further back down the chain, and it becomes clear that doctoring has become routine.
Even if the percentage of meat in a nugget looks reassuringly high, you may be surprised by what exactly counts as meat. Nugget manufacturers source their meat in various ways. Some use British chicken. Some buy high-quality meat direct from Thailand or Brazil. Some buy whatever is cheapest on the market, which is often frozen Thai and Brazilian chicken imported into the EU through Holland's ports.
The Netherlands is the centre of the "tumbling" industry, a process in which chicken is bulked up with water and other additives. Dutch processors defrost the meat and then inject it with dozens of needles, or tumble it in giant cement-mixer-like machines, until the water is absorbed. Salted meat attracts only a fraction of the EU tariff applied to fresh meat. The tumbling helps dilute the salt to make the chicken palatable, so as well as making huge profits selling water, the processors can avoid substantial duties. Once it has been tumbled, the meat is refrozen and shipped on for further processing.
The story gets less appetising still. One of the things that has puzzled observers of the poultry industry is how some processors manage to get so much water to stay in the chicken. Why doesn't it just flood out when it is turned into a takeaway or a ready meal or a chicken nugget? Hull trading standards officer John Sandford has spent over five years investigating. The answer he discovered was profoundly shocking.
DNA tests specially developed by Sandford with the public analyst laboratory in Manchester enabled the English food standards agency to identify lots of water (in one case 43%) and traces of pork proteins in samples of Dutch chicken breasts labelled "halal". Six months later, Irish authorities made an even more unsettling discovery in chicken: undeclared bovine proteins. Seventeen samples from Dutch processors contained them. Some manufacturers were using a new technique - injecting so-called hydrolysed proteins. These are proteins extracted at high temperatures or by chemical hydrolysis from old animals or parts of animals which are no use for food, such as skin, feathers, hide, bone and ligaments, and rather like cosmetic collagen implants, they make the flesh swell up and retain liquid.
These discoveries raised as many questions as they answered. What kind of cow products had been used to produce bovine proteins? If the processors were not declaring the presence of bovine proteins on the labels, could they be trusted to follow the regulations on removing certain high-risk cattle materials from the food chain? The possibility of BSE in chicken meat had raised its ugly head.
Chicken from the Dutch processors named by the Irish authorities remains widely available in the UK. Industry sources say that some nugget manufacturers at the bottom end of the market buy tumbled Dutch chicken, although they would be unaware that some processors' meat contains bovine proteins.
Others nuggets will be made from various bits of British chicken. Some are made from chunks of chicken breast and skin. Some are mostly skin, or skin and MRM. If tumbled meat is being used, the chicken is defrosted in microwaves before being minced into nuggets. Manufacturers can neutralise the salty taste by adding sugar in various forms, often as dextrose or lactose, and put flavour back in with chicken flavourings in the meat pulp, in the batter or in the breadcrumbs. Other additives can help restore the texture. Soya proteins are the commonest used, with gums as emulsifiers, to stop the whole mix separating out again. Phosphates also help glue up the proteins. Some nuggets are made in Britain, but increasingly nuggets are also imported ready-made from developing countries. If a manufacturer does anything to the chicken in this country, it can be legally labelled "produced in England". To get to the beginning of the nugget story, though, we must head east, to a land of chicken and cheap labour.
The Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise near CP Towers in Bangkok is chilly, its automatic doors and air conditioning sealing it off from the blast of 40C heat outside - and the choking smog of east Asia's fastest-developing city. There is one family group sharing a tray of chicken nuggets - a Thai mother and father with a fat little boy bursting from a designer leather jacket, but the other patrons are all alone, disconnected, eating their fast food with silent efficiency. The nuggets slip down. Hot and crisp on the outside, soft and moist inside, they have that textureless, easy-on-the-jaw, flavoured "mouth feel" that children like.
A McDonald's supplier claims the invention of the nugget in 1979. McDonald's, worried by the trend away from red meat towards "healthier" white meat, asked Keystone Foods if it could produce a boneless chicken finger food which would be in keeping with its other fast food. Keystone laboratories came up with McNuggets, little gobbets of minced, reconstituted chicken, battered and breaded.
But it was the Vietnam war and US troops wanting R&R with familiar food which started Thailand off on its trajectory of breathtaking growth, producing food for export. The country is now one of the world's largest exporters of poultry and chicken products - $600m worth last year. Food exports are projected to grow to a staggering $25bn worth by 2007.
KFC franchises in the UK source some of their meat for what they call chicken strips - made from pieces rather than minced chicken - direct from Thailand. Tesco has invested heavily in the country and owns the majority share of the retail arm of Thailand's leading chicken producer, Charoen Pokphand (CP).
Grampian, supplier of fresh chicken and nuggets to all the main British supermarkets, has just closed down a factory in Scotland and ended its contract with some of its British farmers, while buying two huge factories outside Bangkok. Managing director Alistair Cox says it is very hard to compete in a world market in the UK. "The UK government puts an onerous regulatory framework around UK farms and factories, which add costs. Imports coming into the UK may not meet the same standards (although Grampian's aim is to have the same standards in its Thailand operations), but the main cost is labour, and it's cheaper over there."
Driving north out of the sprawl of Bangkok, it takes over an hour to reach the Grampian Foods Siam factories, where 150,000 birds are killed a day and 120,000 a day can be turned into nuggets and other chicken products. Eventually, the traffic jams give way to marshy plains, criss-crossed by canals. Migrant workers, drawn from the poor rural areas in the north and east to work in the industrial belt around the capital, have built their wooden huts over the waterways, which double up as transport system and sewer.
A powerful smell of raw meat and a procession of juggernauts loaded with blue and yellow crates of chickens, uncovered and exposed to the blistering temperatures of late morning, announce that you are close to an industrial chicken factory. A notice at the HQ main entrance says no children under 15 are allowed, while at the gate of a second factory up the road, where nuggets are made, accident figures are posted. (Thailand has the world's second-highest per capita industrial accident rate.)
In many ways, Thai chicken factories are just like English ones - equipped with vast stainless-steel production lines to take the birds from slaughter to finished product, and fed by "crops" of chickens from large-scale intensive farms. They are inspected for hygiene and welfare standards by EU inspectors.
It is in the lives of those who work in them that the gulf becomes apparent. Some of the 3,500 workers at Grampian Foods Siam live on the factory sites in huge dormitories under corrugated-iron roofs. Others spend hours each day travelling in from miles around. We have a rendezvous at the end of a shift with some of the workers who are bussed in the long journey from the outskirts of Bangkok to this and other chicken factories.
The light, though not the heat, is fading as we pick our way through a dusty slum of half- finished concrete houses next to a small, open-air slaughterhouse where chickens are being killed for the domestic market. A row of windowless wooden shacks, built on a broken platform over marshland, open directly on to the six-lane highway. Old plastic supermarket bags clog the ground under the platform stilts and the smell of sewage is overpowering.
Nine of us crowd into a small room and sit crosslegged in a circle on the floor, sharing a communal meal of noodles with slivers of pork, green leaves and papaya. This is home to Khun Neepa, who, together with half of those in the room, works at Centraco, a leading producer of frozen chicken for export to England for ready meals and nuggets. The others work for Grampian.
We eat, then talk. Most of them are paid by the day, and earn the statutory minimum wage of 165 baht (£2.50) a day, six days a week, for a nine-hour day which includes a one-hour break. They work in two shifts, dawn till mid-afternoon or mid-afternoon into the night, depending on the orders. Overtime, which can be two or three hours a day, pays more, and they work it and days off whenever they can to send more money home. Most of them are the first of their families to go into the factories; their parents were rice farmers.
The most labour-intensive part of the factories are the cutting rooms where it is as cold as a fridge and hundreds of workers wearing face masks and gloves cut, chop, debone and rearrange parts. This is where cheap raw animals begin their transformation into profitable "added value goods". Hygiene is very strict. The workers have to wash their hands and boards every hour. There are doctors at the sites in case there are accidents; they have all seen two or three - fingers caught in machines, knives going through nerves, that sort of thing.
The company doesn't like to take on anyone over 40, and the supervisors are very quick to give you warnings - two and you lose seven days' work, any more after that and it's the sack. But Grampian's a good place to work, they say.
At Centraco, Neepa has now organised a union, the first in a Thai chicken factory. Her filing cabinets are jammed in alongside her pots and pans. It's been a fight: she's been sacked and taken to court, but she won and now things are better, she says - they have clean drinking water and uniforms provided, though she doesn't see her children (a six-year-old girl and two-year-old boy) much. They live with her parents in another province.
Khun Sril finds it harder to bear. She used to work in supermarkets and hotels but now she's 33, she has been told that she is too old and no longer attractive enough, so she is working at Centraco. It's hard when the chickens come really fast - her factory can process 190 birds a minute - and she's cut her finger a couple of times, and had to go to hospital when a knife fell on her foot. She has to spend 1,500 of the 4,300 baht she earns a month on rent for a small room without sanitation. She often goes hungry because she is sending money home to her parents in the north to look after her two children, aged two and four. She sees them once a year. Her voice trails off as she talks about them and we fall silent. The others gently make their excuses and leave: it is late, they have to be up early.
Ricky and I are sipping fresh lime sodas in the cool of a five-star hotel in Bangkok. He is a smooth, besuited Thai executive from CP Foods who seems to think I am a broker and is rattling off sales figures in a mid-Atlantic accent: CP is the country's largest chicken exporter, producer of 2,200 tonnes of chicken breast a month for the UK; it owns 100 feedmills and processing factories in China, where labour is even cheaper; it supplies KFC in Europe, and Tesco; it owns large farms - 30,000 birds per shed, or 50,000 in two-storey houses, which meet Tesco-specification stocking densities, with chickens reared and killed on a 42-day cycle, nugget flavourings to different specifications, all hand-cut meat, battered and fried...
I interrupt the flow to ask him about antibiotics found in Thai meat. The EU recently sent its veterinary inspectors to China and they were alarmed to find indiscriminate use of antibiotics in chicken and fish farming, including the use of drugs banned in Europe as cancer-causing. As a gesture of even-handedness, the commission tested Thai poultry, too, and was surprised to find nitrofurans and chloramphenicol residues in samples. Both are banned antibiotics in Europe. Now all Thai poultry imports to the EU are supposed to be checked. Ricky admits that the industry is anxious but argues that it is an isolated problem. He blames producers who are subcontracting, or buying in chicken from China and then relabelling it as Thai produce before selling it on, just as British factories buy in poultry from the Netherlands and relabel it as British.
A steely grey dawn is breaking over Eastbourne, and while the windows of the smarter seaside hotels are still blank, the lights are flicking on in the seedier boarding houses in between. Outside the glazed verandah advertising banana splits, jam doughnuts and Sussex cream teas, two young men are having an argument in Russian. It is 5.35am and I am waiting alone at a bus stop on Seaside Road, next to a shop which is patriotically flying half a dozen union flags.
Suddenly at 5.38am they appear, as if from nowhere, like apparitions, wreathed in rings of cigarette smoke. There is a quick exchange of "Buenos dias" between five or six Spanish- speaking middle-aged men, in trainers and old jeans. A man in an Afghan hat hangs back in a doorway. Two minutes later a dirty, unmarked white coach rolls up and eight or nine get on board, taking their places with a dozen others, already slumped in the old brown seats with their heavily used ashtrays, as they try to catch a last snatch of sleep.
These are some of the foreign shift workers who are bussed each day for an hour or more between the south coast and the Grampian factory at Uckfield to kill and cut up chickens, packing pieces for Safeway, Somerfield and the Co-op, and supplying spare parts to the company's nugget factory in East Anglia.
The coach stops several times to pick up more, and by the end there are about 50. How many nationalities, I ask? "20, no 22," someone thinks: "Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, Kosovans, Bosnians, other eastern Europeans, Iraqis, Arabs, lots of Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis, Spanish, Portuguese, many, many foreigners, not many English." English people do not want this kind of work. "There are many, many refugees." There was a problem a while ago at the factory when "they told all the Russians and Kosovans they had to go home".
Carmen is Spanish, 50ish, smarter than the rest in black jacket and red lipstick. She worked 15 hours yesterday, and after the bus journey back, got home at 11pm and then was up again for work at 5am. "The money is too little, £4.20 an hour, only about £160 a week, unless you do the overtime. That's good, £7 an hour, so you have to do the overtime." She pays £50 a week rent to share a room she can hardly turn round in. She saw an advert in her local Spanish paper for packers in a factory in England and it sounded good - there are no jobs for her in Spain. "But they don't tell you it's hours on the bus each way and it's very cold, so cold in there, and food is so expensive here." We are driving along narrow country lanes now where commuters' dream cottages are still dreaming. The hawthorn is in full bloom and knee-high cow parsley is a shimmer of gauze in the early morning light. "Everyone is moving, England is not England, Spain is not Spain. Everyone moving for jobs," Carmen sighs.
We arrive at the factory, tucked in a fold of Sussex down, at 6.30am. A white double-decker bus, also packed with foreigners, lurches in behind, then come vans and more coaches.
This scene is replayed across Britain each day: from the centre of Derby to the cluster of chicken factories owned by other companies in the Midlands, from Great Yarmouth to the Grampian production lines in East Anglia, from Exeter to the Lloyd Maunder factory in Devon where 18 nationalities work cutting and packing chicken for Sainsbury's.
Most big manufacturers, including Grampian, insist on checks on the paperwork of foreign workers, but inevitably some slip through the net. Where manufacturers employ subcontractors to provide labour, the responsibility in law for checking that the worker is entitled to work, devolves to the agent. Many of the illegal workers have forged papers and, according to immigration officers who have spoken to the Guardian, illegal labour operated by gangmasters is a significant and growing problem in the meat-processing business, as in other sectors of the food industry. Alistair Cox, managing director of Grampian, acknowledges that it is a problem across the industry. "We use agencies but we also check all their records and welcome immigration officials into the business."
Don Pollard has made a study of migrant labour for the T&G union. "The supermarkets are dependent on illegal labour. By definition, figures are guesstimates, but about 40% of their food suppliers' workforces are tied up with gangmasters and illegal labour."
A different kind of illegal activity has been absorbing Sue Sonnex for the last couple of years. In 2000, three Rotherham men were found guilty of laundering £3m worth of unfit chicken and turkey, supposedly destined for tins of Spillers and Pedigree petfood, back into supplies for human consumption. Sonnex, a chief environmental health officer, has been investigating the disposal of condemned meat following the Rotherham case and thinks it represents the tip of an iceberg. During her inquiries, she uncovered chicken nuggets made almost entirely of chicken skin. The industry's problems are endemic, she says, a symptom of a system in which it makes economic sense to ship raw meat hundreds of miles and disguise it with additives so its origin becomes impossible to trace. Once you accept this sort of legal adulteration of processed food, there is no end to it; the ingredients can just as well be pet food. Respectable manufacturers suffer; rogues get away with it.
As a nugget manufacturer, Gary Stiles thinks that we have become too disconnected from our food and disconnection has bred fear and mistrust. He was forced to remake the connection between what he made and what he fed his children when his daughter, Georgia, the Georgia of his brand name, turned out to be autistic. He and his wife started to research the link between diet and illness. He now feels that "if you put junk in, you get junk out", and he's not prepared to do that any more.
· Workers names have been changed to protect their identities.