A new standard for Britain's favourite meat

Under the RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme, chickens get a better deal before slaughter. Kate Hilpern reports
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Most of us think of free range or organically reared chicken being streets ahead of their indoor reared counterparts in terms of animal welfare, but this is not necessarily the case. The Freedom Food scheme, which uses the RSPCA's standards for improving farm animal welfare, applies to all three systems of rearing and the good news is that there has been a significant increase in the number of chickens reared under the scheme.

While 2004 saw 10 million birds reared according to the Freedom Food scheme, this increased to 28 million birds in 2006 and 40 million this year. "That's a 43 per cent increase in the last year alone, which we are very happy about," says Dr Marc Cooper, senior scientist in the RSPCA's farm animals department.

He attributes the increase to greater public awareness about welfare conditions involved in chicken rearing. "There have been a number of TV programmes exploring the issue, for example by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. People have started to think more ethically in their meat purchases as a result."

He adds, "There is also so much choice in supermarkets. People see logos like the Freedom Food scheme and they are curious about why it's different to any other type of meat – so they find out."

However, the welfare issues faced by many meat chickens (known as broilers) are still severe – with the Freedom Food scheme still only accounting for 4.26 per cent of the total broiler market. Broilers are genetically selected to grow quickly and the time from when the birds first hatch to appearing on the supermarket can be less than six weeks. They may put on weight so rapidly that they suffer from severe health problems such as lameness and heart defects.

Meanwhile, low space allowance can impair welfare both directly through movement restriction and indirectly by causing poor litter and air quality. This can also result in lameness, as well as skin disease.

Very low lighting intensities can be problematic too. Used to discourage activity and maximise growth rate, low light intensities can again cause lameness and skin diseases and at very low light levels, the development of eye abnormalities. Where near-continuous lighting is used to increase feed intake, there is evidence that broilers suffer from not having a proper night period.

"Typically, free range and organic systems provide better welfare than standard indoor chicken. But free range and organic chicken are not immune from welfare issues," stresses Dr Cooper. "Basic free range standards mean birds must have a certain amount of space, but we believe that other things are important too. For instance, you don't want the outside area to be a field with nothing else in it.

"Chickens need shade and shelter and they need enrichment items indoors too like straw bails and pecking objects, particularly as they can spend 50 per cent of their lives indoors before they go outside. Given that you can't legally slaughter a free range chicken until 56 days old and an organic chicken until 81 days, the period they spend indoors can actually be longer than an indoor reared chicken – which is often slaughtered at 37 days old."

Since chickens are by far the most numerous farm animals reared for meat in the UK, accounting for around one-third of total meat production, the need to address this is pressing, says Dr Cooper. "The average annual consumption of chicken meat in the UK exceeds that of any other meat," he says.

"Under the Freedom Food scheme, there are over 100 standards which ensure much better welfare for the birds," adds Dr Cooper.

The industry's own assurance scheme – Assured Chicken Production (ACP) – covers more than 90 per cent of UK producers, but it goes nowhere near as far as the Freedom Food scheme. For example, there is no growth rate restriction.

Among the efforts by the RSPCA to further improve matters include discussions with retailers on their meat sourcing policies, which have already led to the adoption of the RSPCA's stocking density requirement by Waitrose for its own-label chicken, by Tesco for its Willow Farm chicken range and by Marks & Spencer for its Oakham chicken range.

"Ultimately, we'd like to see all broilers reared to our standards under Freedom Food," says Dr Cooper.