Free range poultry issues

(First published July 2009, last updated July 2012)

In our household, we used to eat a *lot* of chicken. I hate to think how many of these creatures we consumed a year and I was never permitted to ponder that out loud, under threat of chicken totally disappearing off the table. The best compromise we came up with at the time was to eat free range chicken.

While it isn’t cheaper than “normal” chicken, given other items we saved on we spent the extra cash to somewhat alleviate our consciences.

Free range misconceptions

The image we generally have in mind when we purchase free range chicken is of happy hens strutting around a lovely green field eating and scratching about to their heart’s content without a care in the world… until of course they hit the chopping block.

However, even now the term “free range” can be rather loosely applied in some countries. The birds may still be de-beaked and while not in cages, only have a very limited area to move around in. They may be crammed into sheds in the thousands and although the birds have access to the outside, it’s only the chickens close to the door that can get out.

While chickens are gregarious creatures, when numbers are too high within a given area, the close quarters living can cause all sorts of health problems for the birds and lead to increased incidence of fighting and cannibalism.

I remember a colleague from years ago who worked for one of Australia’s largest brands telling me his first job of the day was to wander through the barn, picking up all the dead birds, of which there were quite a few, and parts of birds – wings or legs that had literally fallen off.

On some farms, even if the birds do have external access, it can be to enclosures that are covered in gravel with no plant material and no shade or worse still, just mud baths mixed with old droppings.

For free range egg laying birds, they are still in some instances subject to malnutrition to increase profitability and live in eternal daylight in order to stimulate egg formation. The massive amounts of calcium needed to produce eggs can cause bone weaknesses in these birds.

Before you pay out extra money for your free range chicken and eggs, learn more about the farms they come from. Criteria that your free range chicken and eggs should meet:

• Clean housing and shelter from the elements
• Protection from predators
• No antibiotic use
• No growth hormones
• Natural foods + addition of vitamins and minerals only as required
• The land must have shade, shelter and palatable, sustainable vegetation
• No mutilation of beaks and claws – if de-beaking is carried out, it can mean the bird population is too high.

Population concentrations

How many birds is too many? This is a hotly debated topic. New voluntary egg industry standards in Australia allow up 20,000 birds a hectare roam on free-range farms. There has been substantial protest from consumers and some producers regarding this, with claims, counter-claims and studies to back both camps making the topic incredibly confusing. As mentioned, it’s not just the amount of space either, but the quality.

Organic poultry

There is another level beyond free range to try and ensure the birds or eggs on your table have lived or have been source from animals living in satisfactory conditions – organic; with the appropriate certifications.

These chickens are also free-range, but far slower growing than intensively raised chickens and also slower growing than free range chickens; plus stocking rates are lower. This usually means fewer health issues.

Organic poultry farming forbids the use of growth stimulants, plus there are far greater restrictions on the types of chemicals in the birds’ diets and general care. Organic standards also indicated no genetically modified (GMO) materials be present in the birds’ diet.

Unfortunately, organic poultry can be rather hard to source; but if you are prepared to buy in bulk, it can be purchased online in some countries for delivery in metropolitan areas.

However, even the term “organic” can have a degree of flexibility depending on the product and country; so consumers should research what organic means as a classification in their regions.

Slaughter methods

A chicken may lead a very healthy and relatively stress-free life, but the slaughter process can be incredibly traumatic; particularly when carried out by unskilled and uncaring workers. Some of the attitude can be attributed to “numbing” of workers over time, poor working conditions and equipment, pay and a general perception about the duties they perform. To me, a skilled worker who has animal welfare in mind performs a very important job; should be respected and paid appropriately.

When I asked the company we used to buy our chickens from about slaughter methods, there was no reply – which wasn’t very encouraging.

Generally speaking, commercial slaughter methods usually involve shackling live birds, immersion in an electrically charged bath of water to stun them, slitting their throats through mechanical and automated means then de-feathering the birds in tanks of scalding-hot water.

There are documented cases of birds still being conscious when hitting the de-feathering stage – meaning they have endured the pain and stress of shackling, electrocution and throat slitting and are then basically scalded to death.

Probably the most humane slaughtering process is controlled atmosphere killing, which is thankfully starting to gain broader adoption, particularly in the European Union. Through consumer pressure, the uptake of this method could be accelerated in other parts of the world.

If environmental and animal welfare issues surrounding the raising of poultry really concerns you, consider raising your own or buying mock-meat products – chicken meat substitutes have improved in leaps and bounds in recent years. Popular egg substitutes in cooking for binding applications include tofu and potato.