What do the labels on chicken meat mean?

A supermarket fridge aisle with several chicken meat products

Aotearoa has no laws or regulations regarding the labelling of meat, so how do companies decide what is free-range, cage-free, and hormone-free? Find out the truth about labelling.

Many people go to the supermarket, or out for dinner, and try to make their best decision for animals and their health. Choosing ‘free-range’, ‘cage-free’ or ‘hormone-free’, you may believe the product you’re getting came from a healthy chicken free to roam outdoors. But is it?

Labels in New Zealand briefly explained

New Zealand has a set of minimum standards that most animal farms must meet (otherwise they are breaking the law). When it comes to chickens bred for meat, these minimum standards are appallingly low. Up to 18 chickens can be kept crammed into each square metre of a shed, so farmers that claim to be ‘above minimum standards’ could have 12 – 15 chickens per square metre

​A label might sound good, but that doesn’t mean that the meat is coming from animals in good conditions. 

The problem with cage-free and hormone-free

If you go to purchase ‘cage-free’ chicken, you assume you’re doing something good, right? You probably assume that there are other birds kept in cages, and you choose to support the higher welfare option.

But no chickens bred for meat in Aotearoa are ever kept in cages (though hens farmed for their eggs commonly still are)! The products you may be buying with these labels are in no way different from the standard product.

In fact, every individual ‘meat’ chicken in a shed has less space than a hen kept in a cage, yet these products proudly display the misleading cage-free label. 

The same is true of the ‘hormone-free’ label. Hormones are sometimes used overseas to increase growth rates. However, no chickens in New Zealand are given hormones. In fact, this is a practice rarely done in any animal farming, yet the label implies a product of a higher standard. 

This label is deliberately misleading and ignores the real reason chickens are so much bigger and grow so much faster than they used to. The last 40 years have seen the chicken industry selectively breed the so-called broiler chicken to grow ‘meat’ not sustain life. These baby birds double in size each week, reaching the size they are slaughtered at in just six short painful weeks. 

Hormones are not used but, unless the chicken is organic, it is likely that they were routinely given antibiotics in their feed to preempt disease outbreaks from the dirty and crowded conditions, and the unhealthy fast-grow breeds currently used. You can read more about antibiotic use and why this is a concern.

A wide angle shot of the inside of a chicken. On the lefthand side small pop-holes are visible in the wall.
A ‘free-range’ chicken shed in Aotearoa [Image credit – Farmwatch]

What about free-range?

In this country, free-range has no legal definition. Probably the most commonly used free-range standard is that of the Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand (PIANZ). 

The main difference is that a free-range shed will have some ‘pop-holes’ in the side that allow chickens access to an outdoor range. When the chickens are less than two or three weeks old, the pop-holes are kept shut until they are fully feathered. The birds may therefore only be able to access the outdoors for half their short lives. 

With around 36,000 birds in each shed, once the pop-holes are opened, many will never make it through the sea of bodies to access the outdoors.

Other parts of the free-range standards are suitably vague, such as providing ‘adequate feed and water’ and ‘housing and equipment must be designed to protect’, with no detail on what this actually means.

It all comes back to breed

It doesn’t really matter what the label claims, because all chickens in New Zealand come from fast-growing breeds.

They are bred to suffer. 

All chickens in New Zealand come from one of two breeds, Cobb or Ross. Because of their unnaturally fast-growth, up to a third suffer from painful lameness. Their bodies are so oversized they struggle to walk and suffer on weak legs, and are highly susceptible to heart failure and other serious diseases.

What can be done about it?

The Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) is a set of higher animal welfare standards, the most important of which reduce the number of birds kept inside sheds and ensure that slower-growing, healthier breeds of chickens are used. 

These standards have been developed and agreed by over 30 animal organisations, and outline the steps all companies should be taking to ensure they are not complicit in some of the worst atrocities faced by farmed animals. 

Hundreds of companies overseas have committed to the BCC. So far, Domino’s, My Food Bag, HelloFresh and SwoleFoods are the only companies in New Zealand to commit to reaching these higher standards for chickens.

Update: As of August 2023, signatories of the BCC in New Zealand include, Columbus Coffee, Mexico, The Coffee Club and Bird On A Wire.

Download your copy of our guide to Chicken Meat Labels.

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