It can be difficult to know if organic chicken really is any different from the cheapest on offer and, crucially, if it’s worth the extra price. Many of us spend upwards of £15 on the occasional Sunday roast for one in a pub, £22 including a nice glass of wine. But when it comes to buying chicken in a supermarket we can’t help but question, ‘what’s the difference?’
We eat a staggering one billion broiler chickens a year in the UK
Unsurprisingly, many people who are searching for quality and value opt for the middle ground.
But, what many people don’t know is that while there’s a huge gulf between intensively farmed and organic chickens, there’s less of a difference between intensively farmed chicken and “technically” free-range chicken.
There’s also less of a difference between organic chicken and “genuinely” free-range chickens that are also reared to very high-welfare standards but not given organic feed.
Confused? This is why you could be paying over the odds for low-quality chicken in pretty packaging.
Let us unravel it for you…
Chicken is by far the most popular meat now eaten in the UK, with over one billion broiler chickens consumed each year.
Technically, we should be a nation of chicken connoisseurs by now; we should be seeking that perfect combination of a firm texture, with a deep flavour reflective of the lush meadows each chicken has been reared in.
A combination that tells us the chicken grew at a natural pace, ate a nutritionally rich diet that nourished it and will, in turn, nourish us.
Yet, despite the huge quantities we consume – or perhaps because of it – our feelings towards poultry are more indifferent than appreciative.
We have lowered our expectations and come to accept sub-standard chicken as doing the job of filling a salad and filling a hole.
High in protein, low in fat
This has especially been the case since chicken, marketed as “high in protein and low in fat”, has become the go-to option for many diets and fitness regimes.
But, the reality is often far from the dream we are being sold.
The most commonly consumed chickens in the UK are now the Ross or Cobb varieties, and yet you’ve probably never heard of them.
The Ross has been genetically bred to grow at a speed so unnatural it is the equivalent to a child weighing 28 stone by its third birthday, reports the RSPCA. This chicken is typically reared indoors and slaughtered at just 35 days old, by which time it is so unnaturally heavy it can barely stand, let alone walk.
This is why we can buy a whole factory-farmed chicken from around £3 per kilogram ‒ the price of a coffee or less than a pint of beer ‒ while an organic chicken costs about four times that.
Organic farmers more commonly opt for the Hubbard bird. The hubbard grows at a much more natural pace (organic birds live for about double the length of time) and has stronger legs, so it can roam free for its whole life.
Free-range and organic chickens are more expensive because they cost more to produce – feed accounts for about 70 percent of the cost to rear a chicken and these birds are eating for double the amount of time. Plus, the older and bigger they get the more they consume.
But, you genuinely can taste the difference, there is more texture and depth of flavour to the meat. You’ll also find less water oozing out.
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Here’s our top three favourite places to buy delicious, high-welfare free-range and/or organic chicken:
This farm in Leicester makes a point of growing its birds to 81 days for an extra mature flavour.
Coombe Farm Organic
Coombe Farm Organic is an online meat box delivery service selling organic, slow-grown and truly free-range chicken.
Pipers Farm set the standard for transparency. On their site, they explain how their free-range chickens are reared and slaughtered.
Is organic better?
Welfare issues aside, to be classed as organic in the UK, chickens have to be grown to at least 70 days and given access to pasture to ensure they are growing more in line with what nature intended.
This lifestyle means the chickens are actually healthier to eat. They contain less saturated fat but higher omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart.
Another important point is that organic birds are only given antibiotics if absolutely necessary. Whereas in lower welfare systems they are given them regularly to prevent the spread of disease.
“Yes, there’s a price difference. But everybody wins – the animal, the farmer, the customer and the environment.” – Richard Smith, organic farmer, Daylesford
Organic certifying body The Soil Association reports that farm animals now account for almost two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the EU.
These are passed down to us through the food chain – you are what you eat, after all.
So, when it comes to buying the best chicken we would argue that organic chicken is undoubtedly better for our health and the chicken’s welfare. It also tastes better, which is a factor we shouldn’t overlook as food is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
How do you know if you’re buying genuinely better chicken?
If you’re buying from a supermarket, the best option is organic. If you’re buying from a butcher or eating chicken out, we would always ask three questions before opting for chicken:
1. What bird is it?
2. How old was it when it was killed?
3. How many birds are there per house?
The answers you are looking for are Hubbard, at least 70 days and hundreds – not thousands – per house.
Organic chicken typically meets these standards; but genuinely free-range – compared to standard free-range (which isn’t free-range at all) – will, too.
How cheap chicken is really produced
In intensive systems, there are commonly 18,000-50,000 chickens per house and that number is growing.
The chicks are typically owned and delivered ready-formed by a producer. This producer provides strict instructions on how they should be reared for maximum growth.
These include insisting they stay indoors, have a high amount of protein in their feed, and are kept in long hours of artificial light so they stay awake eating longer and grow fatter, quicker.
They then collect them for slaughter.
So, the farmers in these systems have little control over how they are actually farming.
The chickens are often so tightly packed they have the equivalent of an A4 piece of paper to live on. Intensively farmed chickens have more space in the oven than they do the shed.
Free-range is a legal term that has been abused by producers with clever marketing teams.
Legally, the producers are required to give the chickens a certain amount of space. But, many employ tactics such as only opening a small door and putting the feed at the opposite end of the shed, so only very few are free-ranging.
Don’t be fooled. These systems often look much more like the intensive system than the organic one.
There are ‘genuinely’ free-range chicken farms, which is why those three questions are so important to ask.
We need to talk about slaughter
Slaughter isn’t the nicest part of any story to tell, but it’s an important part.
Organic farm Daylesford is a leader in the organic movement in the UK. Uniquely, it now owns the whole story of its chickens – hatching its own eggs, rearing and slaughtering the mature birds.
At Daylesford, they slaughter and butcher their chickens on their new onsite abattoir, which they built at a cost of about £1.8m.
The difference between the welfare at Daylesford’s operation, which has a maximum capacity of 10,000 chickens per week, compared with a huge processor that kills up to 10,000 an hour, is pretty significant.
Around 160 million UK chickens are slaughtered without being properly stunned each year – Compassion in World Farming
The operators at Daylesford work as a team; they are multiskilled and take care with each organic chicken.
“They have respect for the animals,” says Smith. “If they spot anything wrong with any of the animals that pass through, they instantly complain to me. They see huge importance in raising the issue.”
A recent report by the Sustainable Food Trust highlights how small, local abattoirs are “at a critical point and in danger of collapse”.
There are now only 63 left in England, down from 1,700 in the 1970s. This is catastrophic for welfare.
The report states:
“The main problem is the dominance of supermarkets, and mergers and acquisitions in the meat industry which allow large abattoirs to prosper at the expense of smaller ones.”
The 2 Sisters slaughterhouse in Wales is one of the largest in the UK and the main abattoir supplying Tesco; it’s open 24 hours a day.
Economically, smaller abattoirs just can’t compete, but they are critical for local farming communities and animal welfare.
For animals, transportation to the abattoir can be the most stressful part of the process. This journey is now regularly hundreds of miles as opposed to just down the road.
When large numbers are the name of the game, there are also horror stories of chickens being grabbed three at a time. They are carelessly pushed into crates where their legs, wings or heads can get crushed.
Plus, Compassion in World Farming reports that around 160 million UK chickens are slaughtered without being properly stunned each year. This causes extreme pain, distress and suffering.
“I would implore people to eat less meat and buy better,” says organic farm Daylesford’s senior farm manager Richard Smith.
“Yes, there’s a price difference, but everybody wins – the animal, the farmer, the customer and the environment.”
We couldn’t agree more.
It is more expensive and this takes some getting used to. But, the true cost of cheap chicken is pretty horrific for everyone.
Farmers always tell you, use the whole animal – including the carcass to make a chicken stock or soup – to make your money go further. This also takes some getting used to.
But, when we used to eat cheap chicken, a chicken would serve two of us for one meal.
Now, we get at least three from it, plus a delicious sandwich.
And, crucially, we enjoy it so much more.
Main image: Abel & Cole organic chicken