​Is free range chicken meat really better?

A white chicken with her back to camera, looking around. Standing in a variety of green and red foliage

Aotearoa is known as a nation of animal lovers. Nearly two-thirds of us share our homes with cats, dogs or other companion animals. We grow to understand their likes and dislikes; even celebrating their distinct personalities, including repeatedly on our social media pages, or is that just me? These members of our families are accepted as the sentient beings they certainly are, experiencing excitement, boredom, joy, wanting to play and also wanting to rest and be alone.  

Perhaps because of this, shoppers increasingly are basing their buying decisions on the way animals farmed for meat and eggs have been treated. If you are one of these so-called conscious consumers, do you find yourself scanning the shelves for chicken meat and carefully examining labels, attempting to make the best choice?

Labels such as free range, cage-free and no added hormones can jump out at you, but what do they really mean? What kind of lives did the animals lead? Is free range chicken really better or are there kinder choices?

What is conventional chicken farming?

Free range is a term often found on supermarket shelves, in the animal welfare policies of food businesses, and in recipe books. Many people say they only buy free range chickens because they care about the life that the bird had on the farm. 

By far the majority of NZ chicken is produced fully indoors on a factory farm. Each windowless, dimly-lit shed houses around 40,000 chickens. As they grow, they are increasingly crammed together, with each having only about the space of an iPad. 

These sheds are barren with nothing but food trays and water lines for the chickens to interact with. The floor is covered with litter, which gets increasingly compacted as the excrement builds up from the birds throughout their lives. The ammonia from this waste also taints the air and can cause chemical burns on the chickens’ bodies.

What is natural behaviour for a chicken?

​Chickens are descended from the jungle fowl and even further back, chickens are modern dinosaurs having similarities to a miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex. 

Modern backyard chickens are delightful, which is why so many people now have them in their gardens, even those who don’t want to eat eggs. 

Chickens are very active and curious birds – quick to investigate new things. A lot of their time is spent scratching the ground, looking for seeds and other tasty morsels. Something else they love is dustbathing. They find somewhere with loose earth and repeatedly kick soil over themselves. It’s a natural way to keep their skin healthy and they really enjoy it!

They form flocks and establish a social hierarchy or pecking order so that each chicken knows their place. Chickens can recognise up to a hundred different individuals and will have particular friends as well as those they dislike within the flock.  

People ask, “Do chickens fly?” Not for long distances, but they can certainly flap a few metres and get up high. At night chickens like to perch up off the ground, sometimes in trees like a kererū. It’s instinctual behaviour to keep them safe from predators.  

So little of this natural behaviour is possible in a factory farm. 

​Why free range chickens still suffer

​But surely free range is very different from conventional chicken farming?

The term free range can be deceiving. While it might conjure up an idyllic scene of chickens happily running around a paddock, scratching the earth and snoozing in the sunshine, the lives of commercial/industrial free range chickens really sucks. There are several reasons for this.

Breeds of chickens

A close up of a white chicken lying on brown litter. Both their legs are sprawled out to one side in an unnatural position.
Image credit – Farmwatch

The chickens who are farmed for meat in Aotearoa, called broiler chickens by the industry, come from one of two breeds – cobb chickens and ross chickens. Since the 1950s, these types of chickens have been aggressively selectively bred to maximise growth in the shortest possible time. They reach adult size in just a few weeks. These big chickens are killed at around six weeks old, (although some are slaughtered at only four weeks). 

As big as they look, these fast-grow birds are still baby chickens. They have the blue eyes of chicks and make the same chirping as baby chickens. 

They are bred to produce meat, not sustain life. 

These breeds of chicken double in size each week and this causes immense suffering. Their flesh grows very fast, especially the breast tissue. That’s the most popular cut of chicken meat and so they’ve been selectively bred to maximise the size of this area of their body. 

In comparison, their bones and organs are very underdeveloped. This causes many birds to struggle to walk and some can’t even hold up their body weight. Many are in pain every step they take. The lack of mobility prevents some of these chickens from being able to walk far enough to get outside the shed.

Too many chickens in each shed

A shed full of thousands of white chickens, crammed closely together. There is little floor-space visible. Red watering lines run the length of the shed. Pop-holes are visible along the left wall, allowing access to the outside.
Image credit – Farmwatch

The high number of chickens ineach shed, is another reason that chickens on free-range farms don’t get outside. Tens of thousands per shed is the norm on industrial free-range farms. An individual bird may need to struggle past thousands of others to reach one of the ‘pop-holes’ in the shed wall. This means they may never get outside and instead live their entire lives squashed in a shed with so many other birds. 

Those that do make it outside spend most of their time sitting, as their bodies are not designed to stand or walk easily.  

The chicken producers know that the way these so-called free range chickens live is far from what caring consumers want to see. This is why their marketing websites don’t show any images of the chickens inside the sheds on their free-range farms.

​Which is better, free range chicken or organic chicken?

So what about organic chicken. Is free-range chicken organic? Is that better for the birds?

There is only one producer of organic chicken in New Zealand, Bostock Brothers. The birds are free range and only get food that is certified organic. 

Bostock keeps chickens in smaller flocks with an outdoor range in an apple orchard. This means the birds have lots of shelter, they can dustbathe and perform many other natural behaviours. These chickens are also managed in a way that causes them to grow slower and have a better quality of life, to be killed at 8-10 weeks old. 

These are improvements when compared with other chicken producers, but Bostock wants to change the type of chicken they use to a slower-growing, healthier breed. 

So yes, organic is better for chickens and is different from free range.

What is the legal definition of free range?

In Aotearoa, chickens can be called free range if all they have is potential access to the outdoors. For an individual bird, this may mean their life is no different from a chicken on a conventional farm. 

You might be wondering how this is allowed? There are no laws determining how free range chickens are farmed. The chicken industry wrote their own free range standards!

​What about New Zealand’s Animal Welfare laws?

Although the Animal Welfare Act says that animals need to be able to express natural behaviour and be prevented from pain and suffering, every year around 120 million chickens are farmed and killed. Many of their instinctual behaviours are not possible in the barren sheds and certainly pain and suffering are widespread.

The Animal Welfare Act is undermined by the Ministry for Primary Industry’s Meat Chicken Code of Welfare. This is a set of standards for how chickens are farmed, written by the industry itself, and then edited and published by the Government’s animal welfare advisors. The standards are very low, so provide little protection for these birds. In reality, they protect the chicken producers, so they can’t be prosecuted for causing suffering that is prohibited under the Animal Welfare Act.

Explaining the labels on chicken meat

Photo of chicken breast meat, with a small silhouette drawing of a chicken in a circle with a black background and various phrases found on chicken packaging superimposed over the meat: Free-range, cage free, Barn raised, No added hormones, Free to Roam; Organic. Title reads “Chicken meat labels.”

Chicken consumers tend to rely on the information included on product labels to understand how an animal has been raised, processed, and packaged. Unfortunately, most labels are deceiving, displaying terms that are unclear, loosely defined, or essentially meaningless.

The weak definition of free range for chickens bred for meat and the absence of a law determining what wording is allowed to be used on chicken labels, and what the terms actually mean, creates a confusing situation for conscious consumers.

Terms are used on the labels of various brands that imply their animal welfare or health standards are higher than the norm. However, this is often a case of humane-washing. It is wise to understand exactly what these labels mean, to really know what you are buying.

​​Welfare regulations and certification schemes

All chicken producers in Aotearoa have to comply with the Meat Chicken Code of Welfare. However, these standards provide so little protection for chickens, that around two million chickens die or are culled every day in sheds around the country and chicken producers are never prosecuted for animal welfare by the government regulatory body – the Ministry for Primary Industries – even when thousands of chickens die.  

In New Zealand, the independent animal welfare organisation SPCA has a welfare scheme, SPCA Certified (formerly called Blue Tick). This imposes a range of higher standards on chicken producers compared with the legal minimum. 
These include that all chickens:

  • need to have access to the outdoors
  • have more space per bird
  • cannot routinely be fed with antibiotics
  • must have at least six hours of darkness per 24 hours

SPCA is also advocating for: 

  • the importation of slower-growing chicken breeds
  • research to find methods that cause less suffering for chickens at slaughter or the adoption of best-practice controlled atmosphere stunning

​Over the Tasman, RSPCA Australia has a similar certification scheme.

​​Welfare regulations and certification schemes

So if the legal standards are so low, what is the answer to producing higher welfare chickens? Animal advocacy organisations around the world have agreed on a minimum acceptable level of welfare for chickens. It’s called the Better Chicken Commitment.

​What does the Better Chicken Commitment mean for chickens?

A circular image of a single chicken with text “Slower-growing, healthier breeds.

Higher welfare breeds

The breed is the most important factor that determines the welfare of chickens. Ross and Cobb chickens currently used in Aotearoa have been selected to maximise their meat production. This comes at a serious cost to their welfare. The Government’s animal welfare advisors have said this over-breeding is, “beyond a point that is compatible with survivability.”

​The Better Chicken Commitment includes a list of higher welfare breeds that have been approved by the UK RSPCA because they have been shown to have a better quality of life. These breeds grow at a slower, more natural rate, and have better leg strength and general health than the breeds currently used for meat production.

A circular image of a single chicken with wings spread with text “More space per bird.”

More space to move

Currently, around 40,000 chickens are crammed into each shed. As they grow, they have less and less space to move. Around 15 birds are crammed into each square metre. That means they have even less space than a hen in a cage.

In line with the Government’s recommended best practice, the Better Chicken Commitment requires chickens to be sourced from farms with a maximum stocking density of 30kg per square metre – that’s approximately 12 birds per square metre. When birds have more space, they are more active, which is better for their health.

A circular image of a straw bale with one chicken standing on it and another next to it, with text “Enrichments: objects to perch on and peck at.”

Enriched environment

The litter is never changed throughout the birds’ lives, so the build-up of faeces can lead to high levels of ammonia that result in burns to their skin. The sheds are a barren environment with nothing to alleviate their endless boredom. This leads to severe frustration and can cause chickens to attack and injure their neighbours.

A circular image of two chickens sitting on a perch, with text “Enrichments: perches.”

There are many small improvements farmers can make, right now, to improve the environment for chickens bred for meat. Perches are needed for the birds to roost while sleeping and they also reduce their time in contact with the dirty litter. Providing enrichment, with items to peck at and dry litter to dust-bathe, redirects chickens’ innate pecking behaviour

A circular image of a single chicken in front of an open window, with the sun shining, with text “Natural light.”

Improvements to lighting and air quality

Conventional chicken sheds are dimly lit, with no windows. The Better Chicken Commitment requires natural light, which helps maintain a natural light/dark rhythm for the birds.

A circular image of a single chicken with wafting air current with text “Better Air Quality.”

The Better Chicken Commitment standards also state the levels of ammonia and carbon dioxide that can be present in the air within the shed. The minimum ammonia standards in the Meat Chicken Code of Welfare already meet the Better Chicken Commitment, but the carbon dioxide levels are not given, so this is a potential improvement.

A circular image of a circle with eyes as crosses and a downturned mouth, with text “Controlled Atmosphere Stunning.”

​Changes to how chickens are stunned and killed

In New Zealand, chickens are slaughtered by being shackled upside down and taken on a conveyor belt. The speed at which the shackling is done by workers means they can get injuries, including fractures. Even without injuries, the process is stressful and likely to be very painful (1), especially in birds who are already lame or have broken legs.

The conveyor line drags the chickens’ heads through a waterbath to stun them before their throats are cut with an automated knife. The conveyor then plunges their bodies into boiling water to remove their feathers.

The waterbath fails to stun some of the birds, who then have their throats cut while fully conscious. Learn more about slaughter of chickens.

The Better Chicken Commitment requires a more effective method of stunning – the birds are either stunned using gas (Controlled Atmosphere Stunning or CAS) or via a more efficient electrical stun that doesn’t require turning the chickens upside down. CAS is already being used in the United Kingdom, parts of Europe and the United States.

A circular image of a clipboard with a series of ticks by each line and a small chicken icon on the first line, with text “Annual public reporting.”

Public reporting

As the changes involved in meeting the Better Chicken Commitment take time to fully implement, companies who sign up to these higher welfare standards have to report publicly on their annual progress towards having 100% of their chicken compliant by the deadline that has been agreed upon.

In the United Kingdom, the government Department responsible for animal welfare has recently said that the standards of the Better Chicken Commitment need to be the minimum standards for chicken production.

​What companies have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment?

There are more than 520 commitments to the Better Chicken Commitment. These include retailers Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer in the United Kingdom, Natural Grocers in the United States and Aldi in France; fast-food chains including Subway in Europe and KFC in western Europe and manufacturers such as McCain and KraftHeinz, both in Europe. 

A full list of companies that have committed, and what countries those commitments cover, can be found on ChickenWatch, by searching the term ‘Broiler’.

Dominos only NZ company to sign Better Chicken Commitment

Out of the 520 commitments, in Aotearoa, we are way behind. There is only one food business that so far has signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment – Dominos pizza. By 2026, all of their chicken supply will meet these much higher standards. Dominos are leading the way towards a more compassionate future. All other New Zealand food businesses are lagging way behind.

​How Animals Aotearoa is creating change for chickens

Many food businesses operating in New Zealand have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment overseas, including meal kit HelloFresh, fast food chains KFC and Burger King, and manufacturers Nestlé and Unilever. Why the double standards? Sadly, these companies are refusing to acknowledge that Kiwis care about chicken welfare. 

Animals Aotearoa was founded at the start of 2021. Our mission is to stop the suffering of farmed animals. For chickens bred for meat, this means significantly improving their lives by persuading food companies to sign up to the Better Chicken Commitment. 

You can help create better lives for chickens by signing to demand change and we’ll keep you updated on how you can help our campaign.

​Where can I buy chicken that meets the Better Chicken Commitment standards?

There is currently no commercially produced chicken meat in Aotearoa that meets the higher welfare standards of the Better Chicken Commitment. Domino’s is the only food business that, so far, is moving towards this for all their chicken supply by 2026.

Consumer meat preferences changing

A shift away from red meat is actually causing more suffering to sentient beings.

As people learn about the way animals are farmed, the suffering caused, and the detrimental effects of meat production on the environment, more are shifting away from red meat (cows, sheep, pigs) to white meat – chickens and fishes. More of these smaller individuals are farmed and killed to produce the same amount of meat. They also often suffer more than larger animals in the way they are farmed, transported and slaughtered.

​Plant-based chicken alternatives

The image has eight images of plant-based chicken products - Let’s Eat Tasty Tenders; Blissful Lemon Chicken; Morning Star Veggie Chik’n Nuggets; Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken; Fry’s Chicken-Style Burgers; Pam’s Plant Based Butter Chicken; Quorn Nuggets; Gardein Crispy Chick’n Patties. Text reads “Delicious plant-based chicken alternatives.”

For those who like the taste of meat, but don’t want to contribute to animals being farmed, there is a range of plant-based substitutes – a range that is rapidly growing. Even companies whose main business is meat production, are following the change in consumer food preferences and making new vegan meat alternatives. Ingham’s is one of these. It is the second-largest chicken producer in Aotearoa and has a range of plant-based chicken products called Let’s Eat. 

Every meal where you choose plant-based foods, you are helping to make a kinder world

​Womble’s story

Close-up of a white chicken lying on her back unable to get up. The underside of her body has few feathers and her skin is red.
Image credit – Farmwatch

Womble was a chicken who was found by Farmwatch investigators and rescued from a free range chicken farm near Auckland. Trapped on her back, she couldn’t reach food or water. She soon would have died or been culled by a farm worker.

Her plight was caused by her breed which has been selected for fast growth and especially a lot of breast tissue. This makes these chickens very top-heavy, in danger of falling and getting stuck on their backs.

Womble was only about five weeks old when she was rescued and her life completely changed. When she arrived, with another rescued chicken called Bumble, she was quite timid, but soon got her confidence and ended up at the top of the pecking order of rescued chickens at the sanctuary.

A white chicken standing on grass with a chunk of watermelon in front of her.

She had to learn about new foods like dandelions, sweetcorn and watermelon, and soon found her favourites. Although for Womble, pretty much anything looked like food and her carer had to be careful not to allow her to eat too much. Fast-growing breeds of chicken are always hungry.  

Like all chickens, she loved a warm day to bask in the sunshine, with eyes closed and wings spread to soak up the heat. Such a far cry from the shed she’d spent her first few weeks inside. 

A series of three images of a white chicken dustbathing in soil with a black chicken in the background watching her.

Womble also loved to dustbathe in the garden. This is such an instinctual behaviour, she just needed some loose soil to get started. Kicking the earth all over herself, (and often any other chickens nearby), she’d get the soil all through her feathers and onto her skin to prevent mites. A natural parasite treatment! 

She received frequent veterinary care and treatment for foot problems, but her breed is designed to maximise meat production, not sustain life. She lived to almost two years old, until she succumbed to health problems related to her fast-grow breed. RIP Womble!

Are free range eggs better?

While free range chicken meat is still a small part of the market share, free range eggs are a much more established product. We’ve seen that the term free range applied to chickens bred for meat means very little improvement for their welfare. Is it the same for free range hens farmed for their eggs? Is it much better than life in a cage?

How do caged hens live?

Brown hens behind the bars of a metal colony cage. The ones in the background are on a metal perch, but unable to sit up straight as the cage roof is too low.
Image credit – Farmwatch

After many years of campaigning by animal advocacy organisations, most Kiwis are aware of the suffering inflicted on hens trapped in battery cages. From the start of 2023, battery cages will be illegal in New Zealand although some producers have replaced them with colony cages. 

These cages (called enriched or furnished cages overseas) are bigger and have a few additional fittings compared with a battery cage.  But up to 80 hens are crammed inside each colony cage. This means each hen has only the size of an iPad within the cage. This is a life of extreme suffering for hens. 

Hens struggle to walk on the wire mesh floor, and can’t even stretch their wings without having to push other birds out of the way. Feather loss is common from rubbing against the wire or being pulled out by their cage-mates, who are bored and frustrated in the cage environment. 

The fittings in a colony cage comprise a nest box, scratch pad and perch. But in reality, the nest box is just a part of the cage with plastic flaps hanging down from the top – no materials to create a real nest. The scratch pad is a tiny rectangle of rougher flooring, compared with the rest of the wire cage. The perch is barely off the floor and the hens can’t sit up fully straight on the perch, as the cage roof is so low. Birds have also been filmed by Farmwatch investigators who have got trapped and died between the perch and the cage floor.

Welfare of free range hens

The good news is that free range is a much better life for hens farmed for eggs than for battery farmed chickens. They have the opportunity to go outside the shed and breathe fresh air. Where the outdoor range is well-managed, they can dustbathe, scratch in the earth, and bask in the sunshine.

Hens used for egg production are of a completely different type to the Cobb chickens and Ross chickens used for meat. This means they grow at a more natural rate, so don’t suffer from lameness and other severe health issues, as a result of their genetic manipulation. 

Two images. One is of a hen bred to lay eggs, she has brown feathers is standing up tall and has a slim body and her wings tucked at her sides. The other is of a chicken bred for meat, she has white feathers and her body is about twice as large as the hen, with a large breast, and her wings are sticking out a bit.
Hen bred to lay eggs (brown) and chicken bred for meat (white). [Image credit – Jinki Cambronero]

​However, there are several welfare problems suffered by these hens. While they haven’t been bred to double in size each week, like the ‘meat’ chickens, they have been selectively bred to lay an enormous number of eggs – approximately 300 per year, compared with their ancestor the wild jungle fowl, who lays around 10-15. The pumping out of eggs at this rate leads to depletion of their calcium levels. Just like people with osteoporosis, this causes the hens to be prone to broken bones. 

Commercial flocks comprise  500 to 1500 birds. This is often too large for the birds to set up a stable social hierarchy, and that can lead to constant stress, especially for the hens at the bottom of the pecking order. Stressed hens, in particular, can be quite aggressive. This means that even some free range hens have the sensitive tips of their beaks cut off, to reduce the damage they can do to flock-mates.

Hens farmed for eggs are killed at between 12 and 18 months as their egg production declines. This is often before they go through what’s called a ‘moult’ when they lose a lot of their feathers and have a rest from egg-laying.  

Moulting chickens do lay eggs again. Those few hens that are lucky enough to be rescued from cage or free range systems, continue to lay eggs for a number of years. That is why more and more people are giving them homes as backyard chickens.

A brown hen looking towards the camera. Behind her is soft-focus green foliage.
Image credit – Jinki Cambronero

​What happens to the males?

Males of the egg laying breed of chickens, of course, can’t lay eggs. So half of the chicks who hatch, are killed at one day old. This generally happens by a brutal process called maceration, where they are ground up alive in a shredding machine. 

Internationally the egg industry is slowly moving towards using a method of ‘in-ovo sexing’ where they can determine the sex of the chick before they hatch. Germany and France have already banned the killing of male chicks. Hopefully the same will eventually happen in Aotearoa. 

​What do cage-free and barn mean for hens farmed for eggs?

​The other labels commonly seen on egg packets are ‘cage-free eggs’ or ‘barn eggs’. The term cage-free means that the hens weren’t confined in cages. While technically cage-free covers both barn systems (where the hens are in sheds) and free range, cage-free labels will likely be barn eggs, as free range is used to denote the higher welfare system involved.

The head and neck of a white chicken stretching her neck and looking sidewards. A brown hen and grass in soft focus in the background.
Image credit – Jinki Cambronero

In conclusion, free range chicken production is very little improvement for chickens bred for meat, but it does make a difference to the hens used for egg production. 

For chickens farmed for meat, the most important thing needed is a shift to slower growing, healthier breeds of chicken. Animals Aotearoa is demanding this change from food businesses in New Zealand.

DELIVERING
BETTER

The painful truth behind food deliveries

References

​1) Gentle, M.J., (2011) Pain issues in poultry Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 135, Issue 3: 252-258

2) EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare. (2019) Slaughter of animals: poultry.  EFSA Journal 17(11): 5849

3) Gregory, N.G., and Wotton, S.B., (1991) Welfare during stunning and slaughter of poultry. Poultry Science Volume 77, Issue 12: 1815-1819

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