The minefield of chicken welfare standards
Organic, corn fed, higher welfare, free range, farm assured – this terminology is meant to help the consumer make better purchasing decisions. Most of the time, it is just confusing – and in some cases, misleading! Some of these have no legal definition, others are pure marketing, whereas others have strict legal implications. Whilst price is usually a good indicator of animal welfare, it is important to be aware of what you are implicitly supporting with your purchasing decisions. Let’s take a look at what these labels mean, and which ones are genuine indicators of quality and welfare.
Chicken is the UK’s favourite meat. Being low fat, high protein means it is often a healthy choice, and a dieter’s favourite. Incredibly, we get through around 85 million chickens per month in the UK! The vast majority of these broilers, whilst produced to UK/EU standards, are still farmed in cramped conditions with very little or no natural light. They are often faster growing breeds, ready for slaughter in just 6 weeks (chickens can naturally live up to 6 years).
A quick note on all these labels – they are very similar to those in the egg industry, in that hen laying eggs can also be RSPCA assured, free range, and / or organic. However, the space and environment requirements for egg laying hens are very different to that for chickens, so they are not covered in this article. We decided that the chicken came before the eggs, so watch this space for more info at a later stage…
Laws and labels
The terms higher welfare, farm assured, corn fed are all terms that don’t have any legal meaning. Of course it doesn’t mean that standards are not being met, but they aren’t bound by any quality assurance guidelines. The minimum legal standards in the UK/EU cover the amount of space given to each bird to roam, but doesn’t specify any requirement for natural light, so called enrichment (pecking objects, bales of hay, perches), outdoor access, or speed of growth. To guarantee any of these, you need to look for a farm assurance brand, such as Red Tractor, RSPCA assurance, or free-range or organic labels.
The Red Tractor standard is a UK farm assurance practice that binds farms to standards covering hygiene, welfare and safety, and is the most common. Natural light is a requirement of Red Tractor standards, as is enrichment. There is still no requirement for outdoor access and fast growing breeds are allowed. Inside, the space requirement is a max of approx. 19 birds per square meter (imagine what that looks like – it is a lot of chickens!). This is for their baseline certified standards. Red Tractor have also got an enhanced welfare certification which is closer to RSPCA assurance, giving birds 29% more space, and free range – which is one of the highest certifications available.
Moving up the welfare ladder, next is RSPCA assured – these broilers have more space to move around, with a max of 15 birds per sqm, are slower growing, as well as meeting the requirements for natural light and enrichment.
The requirements for the free-range label are more stringent – no more than 13 birds per sqm, and continuous access to open air for half their lifetime. They must also be at least 56 days old before they are slaughtered, a slight improvement on the fast growing breeds. RSPCA also have a free range certification which goes above and beyond the legal definition for free range.
Organic is the highest welfare standard with the most space to move around, outdoor access, and a min age of 70 days old for slaughtering, making fast growing breeds difficult to use. They are only given antibiotics if strictly necessary and only eat organic food.
Price is usually an indicator of quality, and of animal welfare – it takes more space, labour and time to grow chickens that meet the higher standards. There is also a difference in their diet. If you choose to buy chicken that doesn’t have a particular certification, you can ask your supplier for more information about what farm they come from and their particular standards or accreditations. Be wary if they aren’t willing to provide any information! It is a tough balancing act given the price difference between standard chicken and the higher ranges. However, the terms free range or organic do add value on menus, and consumers are aware of the higher price tag they require. Tried & Supplied can advise you on sustainability practices, and help you find suppliers that meet the price and quality criteria you need – as well as help you communicate your story to consumers.
One point we haven’t mentioned so far is flavour. It goes without saying that a chicken that has had space to move around, develop muscles, eat better food, breathe fresh air and mature for longer would taste superior to a chicken that has been cooped up (forgive the pun) and fattened as quickly as possible. It will also contain more vitamin D if it has spent time outside in the sunshine. Whilst very little could persuade me to become vegetarian, I am more comfortable eating meat from an animal that I know has been treated well. I enjoy knowing about the provenance of an ingredient – where it has been farmed, what sort of environment it has grown in, and who has been taking care of it. I have always been of the view that the story of an ingredient imparts flavour. We eat with our eyes – and with our ears!