This is the year of the chicken. The nasty, short and brutish life of the British broiler is about to be unveiled. Animal welfare groups have long campaigned, mostly in vain, against the horrors of the poultry industry. Now they have powerful new allies. Tomorrow, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall begins Channel 4's season on food production with a plea to chicken-eaters to go free-range.
On Friday, Jamie Oliver, the top rooster of celebrity chefs, hosts a televised dinner at which guests are shown the progress of the 'standard' chicken from egg to the cling-wrapped hereafter of a supermarket chiller cabinet. For starters, he presides over the gassing of some fluffy male chicks, before revealing the grisly realities of life as an intensively farmed bird. Chicken tikka massala, that national staple, will never taste the same again.
According to the RSPCA, most of the 855 million meat chickens reared in the UK every year suffer 'unacceptable' conditions in the 40 days it takes to fatten them to be slaughtered and sold for £2.50. 'Cheaper than dogfood,' as Jamie cries. But life is changing for the British chicken. Soon it may be scratching in a meadow or at least in spacious barns supplied with the coloured footballs and hanging toys recommended by the RSPCA to combat boredom.
The save-the-chicken drive combines all the trimmings the public likes: celebrity, kindness to dumb creatures and a sideswipe at retail behemoths that force down prices. The crusade also reflects the nation's growing passion for ethical food. In my fridge is a pack of supermarket prawn tails labelled in terms that Keats could have devoted to a Grecian urn. They are, according to this ode on crustaceans, 'responsibly farmed... within a co-operative in southern Sumatra working to high standards of care for the local community, wildlife and the environment'. We have not got so up-close and personal with the food we are about to swallow since Lewis Carroll's Walrus and Carpenter walked the oysters up the beach.
Given this climate, Jamie Oliver's programme does not just elicit revulsion. It will not only make people swear to pay the extra £1 that will ensure a good life for a chicken. Participants in the show actually weep with pity upon seeing what goes into their meals. I would be astounded if sales of free-range, organic chickens, now only 5 per cent of the market, don't leap. Compassion is suddenly as vital as bread sauce to a Sunday roast. This is the age of the RSPCA's 'freedom chicken', the Mandela of the avian world.
In my columns for The Observer, of which this is the last, I don't think I have ever previously mentioned the great chicken crisis. It would be sadistic not to welcome the advent of the 'high-welfare' bird that may now supplant the broilers condemned to poultry hell. Even so, I can't help noticing the similarities between the low-welfare chicken and someone whose predicament I have written about often, the low-welfare prisoner.
As chicken fever took off last week, the announcement that prison suicides in England and Wales increased by 37 per cent in 2007 was rather eclipsed. There were, though, some similarities to the poultry scandal. Campaigners, notably the Howard League, blamed overcrowding for the rise in deaths. A Ministry of Justice spokesman was quoted as disputing this, arguing that cell-sharing is 'a known protective factor against suicide'. In other words, what is bad for caged chickens, who peck and torment one another when crammed into too small a space, is good for humans.
To be fair to the spokesman, it is harder to kill yourself if someone is on hand to raise the alarm. Still, 11 out of 92 victims managed it, presumably as their cellmates slept. If citizens are scandalised by chickens existing in a space the size of a sheet of A4 paper, then government representatives might be expected to be less upbeat about housing two human beings in a room roughly the size of a disabled lavatory.
In 1997, 9,498 people had to share cells designed for one. That number has risen to 17,974. Budget cuts mean that many will be 'banged up', without work or diversion, for up to 23 hours a day. They may not have to 'walk in their own faeces', like Jamie Oliver's chickens, but they do have to eat all their food in their bunks, next to an open lavatory.
These meals, typically a veg-free burger macerated for hours in fat, are what you would expect for an average outlay of £1.93 per person a day. Oliver's fowl dinners, however vile, would be a rare treat. Whereas supermarkets are already pledging to be nicer to chickens, there is no such hope for lonely, aimless or suicidal prisoners. Although early releases have slightly reduced a record population, down to 80,707 before Christmas, Ministry of Justice projections show that could rise to 93,000 by 2010.
Far from keeping many more people out of jail, the government, in the midst of its recent crisis, suddenly found the £1.2bn to build three US-style 'titan' prisons that will each warehouse 2,500 inmates. The idea that it is imperative to lock up so many people sounds hollow when you look at who gets sent down. Take Liam McManus, found hanging in his single cell at Lancaster Farms Young Offenders Institution at 7.10am a few weeks ago.
Liam was 15 and not on suicide watch. He was serving six weeks for breaching a supervision order that formed part of a sentence for affray. His high school held a special assembly for a popular boy who was good at art, while his friends posted tributes on the local paper's website.
One said: 'I am Liam's best friend; he was like my brother. It isn't sinking in that he is never going to come back to me.' There was no widespread grief in a country that mourns its chickens but sheds few tears for its incarcerated children.
I don't mean that this is a brutal society. It's just that public outrage is focused, inevitably, on well-publicised horrors rather than the shameful secrets of a state that too often fails to safeguard the lives of those entrusted to its care. Frances Crook of the Howard League wants a community service champion to highlight the iniquities of squalid, over-crowded jails that drive frail and vulnerable people, often petty offenders and the mentally ill, beyond the margins of endurance.
Perhaps, when Oliver has redeemed the chicken industry, he could do 'Jamie's Prison Dinners' as his next social project. In the meantime, virtuous (and better-off) consumers will soon be spending extra to buy the happiest poultry in the land. Good. Salvation is on the way for battery chickens. If only battery humans were so lucky.