Where does NZ chicken come from?

A person (head not visible) standing in front of shelves of chicken meat, holding up and examining a packet of chicken mince.

There are several common misconceptions about how chickens are raised for meat in New Zealand. These birds are called “broiler chickens” by the industry. Misleading labelling and, the difference between egg and meat farms, contribute to many people not realising the realities for chickens bred for meat in Aotearoa.

Read on to see common misconceptions about chickens bred for meat and check if you’ve been duped in the grocery aisle!

A note on terminology. This article is going to be primarily talking about chickens bred for meat. Many people have heard a lot about hens farmed for eggs being kept in cages, and suffering because of it. While I will touch on this in the article, I will primarily focus on chickens bred for meat. They may not be trapped in cages, but they are trapped in an unnatural body crammed with thousands of others in massive sheds. 

Three images. One is a chicken bred to lay eggs which has brown feathers and is tall and slim. A second is an illustration of a jungle fowl perching on a branch, they have red, orange and blue feathers and a big red comb. The third is a chicken bred for meat, they have white feathers and are quite wide, with a large breast and spawled wings.

Where does NZ chicken come from? And how are chickens treated?

While we hear lots of news coverage about eggs and standards for egg farms in New Zealand, very little is reported about farms that raise and slaughter chickens for meat.

There are hundreds of these sheds filled with chickens across the country from North to South. In fact, you may have driven past a farm without realising as they really just look like warehouses.

Chickens farmed for meat are treated like objects, with every part of their short life controlled. Many live in chronic pain, including suffering debilitating lameness, all because they’ve been bred to grow faster than nature intended. 

A wide angle photograph showing a large warehouse full of white feathered chickens. There are so many chickens the ground can barely be seen. Long polls with food balls and water drippers run the length of the building at the head height.
Inside a free-range chicken farm in New Zealand. Image credit – Farmwatch

How are chickens farmed in NZ?

Chickens farmed for their meat suffer as a result of some of the worst animal welfare practices of any animal in New Zealand.

Despite being known as a nation of cow and sheep farming, the vast majority of our farmed animals (over 80%) are actually chickens, and nine out of ten chickens in NZ are farmed for their meat (not eggs).

Chickens bred for meat have been bred to suffer to maximise profits and the conditions they are kept in on farms, only further exacerbate that suffering. 

Chickens have been bred over the last five decades to grow abnormally fast. This is the primary cause of their suffering. The unnatural breeds that are used in New Zealand (Cobb and Ross breeds) are slaughtered at just six weeks. Their unnatural size and growth rate, lead to high levels of chronic pain.. Some chickens grow so big that their legs can’t hold their bodies off the ground and as a result, they can’t reach the food and water.

They spend their short lives trapped inside barren sheds, struggling to move amongst thousands of chickens. Even on free-range farms, there can be around 12 -14 chickens kept in every square metre (that is about the size of a small desk). 

It doesn’t have to be this way, around the world people are calling for an end to these abnormally fast-growing breeds in favour of healthy breeds who grow more naturally and farms that treat them better. In NZ, some of our major food brands are getting on board, including HelloFresh and Domino’s. You can learn more about these standards here.

Does NZ chicken have hormones?

This is a common misconception when it comes to chickens bred for meat. Because of the unnatural size of these birds, many have assumed that growth promoters or genetic modification have been used.

But in New Zealand, no hormones are used. By adding a label to promote the fact that the meat is hormone free, the industry is obscuring the reality of what really causes the unnatural growth and also hides what else might be added to chicken meat that isn’t hormones. 

The abnormal breeds used has already been described above. These chickens don’t need anything added to make them grow faster, they actually grow at such a fast rate already, because of genetic selection.

While hormones might not be added, some farmers routinely add antibiotics to the feed of chickens.

People wonder, why would chickens be given antibiotics? These antibiotics are used because of the crowded dirty conditions the chickens are kept in and to help these unhealthy breeds survive the time until slaughter. The antibiotics can also increase how fast the chickens grow.

Inside a chicken farm in New Zealand. Image credit – Farmwatch

What does cage-free chicken mean?

The label cage-free on chicken meat means nothing. It is just a marketing ploy that leads consumers to think that cage-free chicken is better than the rest.

What is the difference between cage-free and free-range chicken?

When it comes to chickens bred for meat, chickens are not kept in cages. So when you see the label ‘cage-free’ on chicken meat in the supermarket, all that label can tell you is that it is chicken meat that meets the minimum standards described above.

A standard chicken operation will have upwards of 40,000 chickens in each shed. A free-range operation can have 36,000 chickens in each shed, so there is very little difference. 

In free-range sheds, there will be small gaps in the wall called “pop-holes” that provide access to the outdoors. The unnatural breeds who have difficulty walking and may suffer from a range of other health problems, struggle to get outside. Others are trapped in a sea of thousands of other chickens blocking their access to the outside. Some studies suggest that more than a third of chickens never make it outside.

On a standard farm, chickens are kept with about 15-17 chickens per square metre (about the size of a small desk) and 12-15 chickens per square metre on so-called “free-range.”

Compare that to free-range chickens on egg farms. They have a maximum stocking density of 2-3 chickens per square metre.

All this makes you wonder how the industry can get away with such misleading labelling.

Are caged chickens banned in NZ?

This is a more complicated question than it initially sounds, but the simple answer is no.

Cages are not used for chickens bred for meat, but they aren’t explicitly banned. When it comes to hens farmed for eggs, one type of cage, known as the battery cage was banned this year. But colony cages are still legal. You can read more about egg farming here

A person (head not visible) standing in front of shelves of chicken meat, holding up and examining a packet of chicken mince.

Interested in learning more?

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