Over 50 billion chickens are reared annually to provide us with meat and eggs – that’s around seven times the number of people on earth.
In this feature, I’ll focus on chickens grown for meat, referred to in the industry as broilers.
The biggest livestock production in the world
More chickens are grown for food than any other livestock in the world. In recent years, production has changed enormously, with conventional farming methods becoming more and more intensive. By intensive, I mean produced in large numbers, specifically for commercial retail or wholesale.
Intensive systems attempt to make farming more “efficient”, ultimately making the finished products cheaper. While cheaper chicken (and therefore intensification) can seem good for consumers, there are hidden costs which we should all be aware of.
When farming systems evolve from traditional, small and ethical systems, to those primarily focused on making large profits, the quality of the chicken can suffer, as can the sustainability of the system.
What does this mean for chickens?
The life of a farmed chicken can vary dramatically, depending on the system it’s born into, and in which part of the world. Different countries have different regulations for the treatment of farm animals, and some countries have no regulation at all.
In Europe, regulation is the highest in the world, which is good news for its chickens. European law prohibits the use of growth hormones, extreme confinement, feeding of chicken to chicken, heavy use of antibiotics, and bleaching of carcasses after they’re slaughtered.
However, countries that have little or no regulation can see their chickens packed in sheds in extreme confinement, pumped with large numbers of antibiotics and fed the sterilised innards of previous flocks. Fast-growing birds can produce large breast meat so quickly that their young, fragile legs become unable to support them. It is a grim world, kept hidden behind closed doors, designed for consumers who do not ask where their chicken has come from.
In stark contrast to this “concentration camp”-style chicken farming, there are many fantastic farms that offer a relative paradise for their birds, where welfare and quality are at the heart. This means that the chickens are kept in small groups, with plenty of comfort and stimulation, and have slower, healthier growth rates. Ultimately, this low-stress environment means that the birds do not need drugs or decontamination before reaching our dinner plates. The great thing about this type of chicken is that it cooks and tastes far better, too.
Higher welfare indoor chicken barn with environmental enrichment
What is higher welfare?
Higher welfare is the name given to farms that design their systems to provide good animal welfare for the birds, usually based on scientific understanding.
Some farms, such as well-run free-range or organic farms may naturally achieve higher welfare. However, many large commercial farms are now applying higher welfare criteria to their own existing systems, which is great for their chickens.
A good higher-welfare system considers life on a farm from the perspective of the chicken, and so provides them with the following:
- Good lighting: Either natural daylight, or systems which replicate natural day and night lighting patterns.
- Physical stimulation: Bales of straw, scatters of pellets or frames to perch on encourage the chickens to move around, exercise and perch – all things they do naturally, given the chance.
- Controlled use of drugs: Antibiotics can only be used when really needed, and have to be prescribed by a vet.
- Lower stocking density: This means that there are less chickens per square metre, so more room to move and stretch their wings, as well as a cleaner environment.
- Vegetarian feed: Believe it or not, chickens in many countries are fed the remains of other chickens or even cooked chicken feces.
- Health records: Chicken in higher-welfare systems are assessed for health, often by monitoring and recording their ability to walk, as well as any medical issues that affect them.
What is free range?
Great question! It all depends on where in the world you are, the type of farm being referred to and the time of year.
Ideally, free-range chickens will enjoy the benefit of roaming outdoors on pasture or wooded areas, behaving naturally. In many cases, this is true. However, outside of Europe, there is often no legislation stating what free range actually means, or how it should be regulated.
Chickens are divas. They will only go outside if everything is just right. This means not too hot or too cold, not too windy, not too dark, not too bright, no threat of predators, and, importantly, there has to be something worth going outside for – grass to peck in and trees to rest under, for example. Free-range chickens will only be allowed outside once they have enough feathers, usually at around 20 to 23 days old. According to EU regulations, free-range chicken must live for at least 56 days, so that it can have access to the outdoors for at least half of its life.
In many countries, especially very cold or very hot ones, it is possible that free-range chickens never go outside at all. For example, free-range chicken in Canada in the middle of winter is a nonsense. If it’s too cold for people to be outside, it’s too cold for the chickens, too! For this reason, in these countries it’s often better to focus on providing the right environment indoors.
Ultimately, a good free-range or pasture-based farm, where the chickens can behave naturally as they’re supposed to, is a great environment for them to grow in. This results in happy and healthy birds that create better quality meat. (Find out more about free-range egg production.)
Don’t be fooled by labelling!
Many retailers and brands are increasingly trying to imply that their chicken comes from small-scale farmers or higher-welfare sources, often when it does not.
Beware of false brands. This is where a name is created to suggest something about the origin of the chicken, without actually having any real basis in fact. For example, chicken in a discount supermarket labelled “Sunny Forest Farms Chicken” is unlikely to be from a small farm in a forest, with chickens given access to sunshine. It is simply clever marketing of standard, intensively-produced chicken.
In the US, be especially wary of products labelled as “natural”. This term is extremely misleading and has no reference to the farm from which the chicken came. It simply means that it has been minimally processed and contains no other ingredients. Unless the chicken states it is pasture raised, or carries a trusted third-party certification, you have to assume it is conventional intensively-produced chicken.
What chicken does Jamie Oliver buy?
The chicken purchased by Jamie’s restaurants, or used in his products will vary according to where in the world you are. However, we always use higher welfare as a minimum, to ensure great-tasting food at the same time as being ethically and environmentally conscious. Most of our restaurants do in fact buy free-range chicken, as the chefs want the tastiest product, in addition to good animal welfare.
Jamie’s Italian in the UK buys all of its chicken from a free-range producer, where the birds are mainly housed in small, portable sheds. This gives the advantage of being able to move the sheds between flocks to allow each flock to benefit from fresh green pasture, all in the Norfolk countryside!
What chicken to buy: a guide
In order to help ensure that you’re buying chicken products that are in alignment with your values, I’ve pulled together this quick-reference chart:
- Standard conventional chicken: This will often be produced to minimal legal requirements in the country you’re in. We don’t recommend this, as welfare and sustainability can be poor.
- Higher-welfare chicken: This is a good affordable option, providing it is certified by a third party such as Freedom Food, RSPCA or Certified Humane. It can be from indoor or free-range farms and guarantees a good level of animal welfare.
- Free-range or pasture-raised chicken: You will usually pay a little more for free-range chicken. This is a great option if it’s from a farm where birds can benefit from quality outdoor space. Freedom Foods, RSPCA, Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved certify these products too, which provide an extra level of care.
- Organic chicken: In most cases, organic will be the best option in terms of welfare and sustainability. However, this does depend on the country and the third-party certification. In Europe, organic chickens have to have free range outdoor access, and will be at least 72 days old, which provides a really great tasting, slow grown bird.
As you’ll have learned, the world of chicken terminology can be confusing, and rules can vary from country to country. The best approach is to know your labels, watch out for misleading marketing and always buy the best-quality chicken that you can afford.
To find out more about ethical shopping from an animal welfare perspective, head over to this feature, or if you’re feeling inspired to cook up some delicious chicken recipes, check out some of our favourites.
Organic and free-range chickens have lived longer and are stronger, healthier birds. A happier bird makes for happier food. Plus they taste better. Join our Food Revolution!