Animal welfare and farming groups have hit out at supermarket giant Tesco for cutting the retail price of its standard chicken to benefit "shoppers on a budget".

The store has brought down the price from £3.30 (US$6.42) to £1.99 (US$3.87), which the National Farmers' Union (NFU) says is "extremely ill-judged and short sighted."

The recent media coverage over chicken production by celebrity chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver has, says Tesco marketing director Jonathan Church, "raised awareness of the choice available to customers."

Tesco has now increased orders for free range birds, which makes up for 30% of its total chicken sales.

An NFU spokesman told just-food: "It is completely the wrong thing for Tesco to be doing. It's extremely ill-judged and short sighted. They're devaluing the product and doing it at a time when, overall, the market is strengthening and chicken prices are rising. They're sucking value out of the supply chain and unless Tesco is going to subsidise this, it is not a sustainable price."

Tesco says it has seen an increase of 70% in chicken sales compared to this time last year.

Jonathan Church, Tesco media director, said: "We have been working hard for a while to increase the amount of higher welfare chicken we sell. No-one should feel guilty for buying a chicken just because it is good value. The only reduction we make is in the price, not the welfare.

"Consumers have had a tough start to the year with mortgage worries, energy price rises and inflation creeping into some areas of household spending. We are determined to help by keeping the cost of the family shop down."

Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), which praised Tesco in its latest survey for improving the environment of indoor-reared birds, said the chain has "taken the wrong approach", and it wants to see supermarkets move away from buying intensively-reared chickens and provide greater welfare for birds produced indoors."

Lesley Lambert, director of research and education at CIWF, said: "The depressing GBP£1.99 (US$3.87) price tag on Tesco's standard chicken does not reflect the real price of producing it. At the moment, farmer's are making GBP£0.02p (US$0.03)per chicken, so this will push them to the absolute limit.
 
"While Sainsbury's and The Co-op have committed to massive improvements in animal welfare, Tesco are showing their ethical credentials with this race to the bottom. Tesco should be cutting the price of its higher welfare chicken and making it affordable for all people."