Organic birds are given good natural and the most space to roam around indoors, and are encouraged from an early age to roam free (Riverford)
Organic birds are given good natural and the most space to roam around indoors, and are encouraged from an early age to roam free (Riverford)

Unmasking the truth behind food labelling in the chicken industry

In the first of a five-part series Lizzie Rivera reveals that supermarket labels are nothing short of meaningless and explains how to find the most humanely reared chicken

Lizzie Rivera
Sunday 04 June 2017 11:27

The beginning of June brings with it Open Farm Sunday, which paints a reassuring picture of the food industry: families can see pigs wallowing happily in the mud, chickens scratching on the range and cows and sheep grazing in the fields across the UK.

However, this unfortunately is not the reality for 70 per cent of the 75 billion animals farmed worldwide each year. Open Farm Sunday, sponsored by some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets, doesn’t open its doors to the millions of caged chickens, the pigs trapped in farrowing crates and the cows being intensively milked right here in Britain.

As both a meat and animal lover, it's a tough truth to face. I’m now what’s known as “flexitarian” – someone who eats less meat, and only very high welfare – and started a website bicbim, to help like-minded people source ethical produce.

After more than three years of research – speaking to everyone from campaign groups including Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), certification schemes such as Red Tractor and RSPCA Assured, and the supermarkets willing to talk to me, like the Co-Op – I’m still digging to find the truth behind the labelling. It’s extremely difficult to get a clear understanding of what the life of an animal is really like from birth to slaughter, and how this differs for each standard and supermarket brand.

And this is the crux of the issue. Clever marketing using words such as ‘farm fresh’, ‘British’, ‘natural’ are meaningless when it comes to animal welfare, but conveniently lead people to believe they’re purchasing a higher-quality product.

It’s fair to assume that the higher the cost, the higher the welfare, but that’s not necessarily the case either.

“Packaging on animal products can be designed to make consumers feel better about what they are buying. Pictures of animals happily grazing in rolling fields do nothing to inform people of the truth about how farm animals are actually raised,” says CIWF’s chief executive, Philip Lymbery.

It’s all terribly confusing and I’m sure it’s all meant to be terribly confusing so the likes of you and me stay away from this stuff.”

What follows is the first in our four-part series that focuses first on chickens, then cows, pigs and sheep. It reveals how farming has developed since the Second World War, when government policy first began to incentivise and subsidise factory farming as a means to feed the nation.

It exposes how this has gone way too far, and how humanity has been forgotten in push for more and ever cheaper meat.

Fowl play

Ironically, our favourite meat, chicken, arguably gets the rawest deal.

In the UK alone, we now eat more than a staggering 900 million chickens each year. Even more shockingly, less than 10 per cent of chickens are produced in what are considered to be 'higher welfare' conditions.

People flocked to chicken after reports started linking our high red meat consumption to cancer. Touted as ‘'low in fat, high in protein'’, it has become the go-to meat for many diets and fitness regimes.

What the labels really mean

Inside space: 10 birds per square metre (sqm)
Outside space: one bird per 4sqm
Birds are given good natural light and the most space to roam around indoors, and are encouraged from an early age to roam free-range. Slower growing breeds are used, which means birds develop at a natural rate. They eat organic food and individual birds are only given antibiotics if absolutely necessary.
Soil Association is generally considered the highest welfare organic certification.

Inside space: 10 birds per sqm
Outside space: one bird per sqm
Birds are given natural light and more space to roam around, and are also encouraged to roam free-range.

RSPCA assured
Inside space: 15 birds per sqm
Outside space: not always required
Chickens can be free-range (as above) or indoor-bred, and this will be clearly labelled. The indoor-bred chickens have significantly better lives than intensively reared chickens – with natural light and natural enrichment (perches, objects to peck at such as straw bales and vegetables).

Red tractor
Inside space: 19 birds per sqm
Outside space: not required
This is the most common food safety standard required by most retailers. Their animal welfare standards are inline with the minimum required by law, which are widely considered to be insufficient. This means chickens are too tightly packed into barns, don’t have to be given natural light, and can be bred to grow unnaturally fast.

Kosher and halal
When it comes to chicken welfare, these are mainly concerned with the slaughter method. Kosher forbids the use of stunning. Halal requires the animal to be alive at point of death, but it is often stunned first.

British/ corn fed/ fresh
Meaningless terms when it comes to animal welfare.

However, chicken shops offering £1.99 meal deals are also on the rise – along with obesity. There’s only one way it’s possible to produce meat this cheaply: factory farming.

Despite Jamie Oliver’s and Hugh Fearnley-Whingstall’s best efforts – which began with their TV campaigns against battery-farmed chickens almost 10 years ago – conditions for the majority of birds hasn’t improved. In fact, the number of higher-welfare chickens in the UK is at its lowest in a decade, according to Jamie’s Food Revolution.

To meet our increasing demand for white meat, and to keep prices low, farmers have been forced into new levels of efficiency. They now produce chickens that grow at phenomenally unnatural rates and have the equivalent amount of space as an A4 piece of paper to live on.

“Frankly they have more space when they are dead and in the oven than alive,” says Lymbery.

Yet, most birds can barely stand let alone walk by the time they reach six weeks old and are ready to be slaughtered for meat. This is because they have been bred to grow so fast their legs simply haven’t had the time to develop the muscles to support their weight.

“If a newborn baby grew as fast as your average supermarket chicken, by her third birthday she would weigh 28 stone,” says RSPCA’s chicken welfare specialist, Kate Parkes.

The true cost

Aside from the obvious animal welfare issues, this means these chickens aren’t actually as healthy for us as we have been led to believe.

One report reveals intensively reared chickens contain as much fat, gram for gram, as a Big Mac. Plus, they are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent disease caused by living in such close confinement, which is leading to a rise in resistance to the drugs in humans.

At the other end of the farming spectrum, slower-growing better-fed organic chickens contain less saturated fat and higher omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart. The birds are also only given antibiotics if absolutely necessary. Whenever buying chicken Lymbery advises consumers look for three labels only: organic – the highest welfare standard – free-range and RSPCA Assured, which offers a further set of welfare standards.

For example, RSPCA Assured is the certification that prohibits the slaughter of chicken via the frequently used shackling system, where birds are hung upside down by their ankles and stunned in a water bath with an electrical current running through it. Their studies show that this is painful and not 100 per cent effective, and using low doses of carbon-dioxide is a more humane way of killing birds for meat.

What’s put first, the chicken or the egg?

We’re a nation of animal lovers, and when given clear choices the majority of us make the more humane one.

“Eggs are a really good success story of labelling,” says Jon Walton from the Soil Association. “The free-range market was recognised and labelled with the distinction between barn and caged and consumers made an informed choice to latch on to the higher welfare brand.”

Around 60 per cent of eggs sold are now free-range, and a high proportion of those that are caged are sold to the food producers for ready-meals and sandwiches, as opposed to individual shoppers.

Thanks to consumer demand, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Co-op have already implemented cage-free egg policies and the rest of the supermarkets have committed to going cage-free on all of the eggs sold on the shelves by 2024. We now need similar commitments for chickens reared for meat.

No chickening out

“We could easily write a gold standard [for the treatment of animals] tomorrow, that’s no problem,” say Dr Mark Cooper from RSPCA Assured. “But it’s got to be commercially viable and achievable for producers to work to and still at a cost where the public are willing to pay that extra for it.”

At times during this research, when talking to the humans behind meat production, I was hopeful that chicken farming might not be as bad as my early research suggested and that exposés on factory farms are showing the exception and not the rule.

But the sad truth is that what would widely be considered to be an unacceptable standard of looking after animals has become normalised.

High-welfare chickens delivered to your door

Pipers Farm –
You can read all about how these ‘properly’ free-range chickens are reared and slaughtered on their website. That’s the level of transparency we should have for all meat.

Factory farming isn’t just the fault of a soulless corporation or heartless factory farmer, it’s a whole system which takes the humanity out of producing and eating meat. And consumers have a huge role to play, because by buying meat that doesn’t have high welfare assurances we continue to make it profitable to farm animals in this way.

You can buy a whole factory-farmed chicken from around £2 per kilogram. An organic chicken costs about four times that. Free-range is priced somewhere in the middle of the two.

The question is would you be willing to pay extra – and perhaps eat meat less frequently to balance the costs – for an animal to be treated humanely? The honest answer to that will be revealed the next time you are in the supermarket.

Recipes from Riverford organic farm:

Poached chicken salad with watercress, potatoes, cucumber and herbs

This is a semi-warm salad, with lightly poached chicken breast and fresh herbs. We’ve added a little sharpness from the gherkin and lemon, and some peppery watercress for added punch.

1 carrot
1 leek
2 celery sticks
15g parsley
2 chicken breasts
​500g salad potatoes
30g chervil
50g watercress
½ cucumber
2 gherkins
1 tbsp dried dill tops
2 tbsp soured cream
1 lemon
Salt and pepper

First put the stock together for the chicken to poach in. Scrub and roughly chop the carrot, roughly chop 1 leek, washing it well before to remove any grit. Wash and roughly chop 1 of the celery sticks. Pick the leaves off the parsley stalks. Peel the skin off the chicken breasts. Put the chicken in a pan, one that will fit them fairly snugly. Add the carrot, celery, leek and parsley stalks only (save the leaves for later). Season with a little salt and pepper.

Add enough water to cover the chicken well, plus an extra 5cm on top. Heat the pan, just until you can see the first few bubbles form before it starts to really boil, then turn the heat right down. Cook on a low heat, a bare simmer (no bubbles) for 15 minutes.

While the chicken cooks, wash the potatoes (no need to peel). Cut any large ones in half or quarter’s, so they’re roughly all the same size. Put them in a separate pan and add a good couple of pinches of salt. Bring the pan up to a boil, then cook until the potatoes are tender, about 12-15 minutes. Test by inserting a sharp knife. Drain once cooked and keep to one side to cool a little.

Meanwhile, wash the chervil and watercress and leave to drain or pat dry with kitchen paper. Wash the half cucumber. Cut it lengthways in half and scrape out the seeds with a small spoon. Finely slice. Put the slices in a large bowl. Once the chicken has poached for 15 minutes, turn off the heat and leave in the pan for a moment. Finely slice or dice the gherkins. Wash and finely slice 1 celery stick. Chop the reserved parsley leaves and the chervil.

Keeping a little parsley and chervil back to garnish the salad, add the rest along with the dried dill tops, gherkins and celery to the cucumber. Add the soured cream. Squeeze in the juice from quarter of the lemon. Season with a little salt and pepper. Pick off and discard any larger stalks from the watercress. Lift the chicken out of the pan. Leave both chicken and potatoes to cool slightly, about 5 minutes or so. Once cooled, thinly slice the chicken, holding it with a fork if it’s still a little too warm for you to handle.

Add the potatoes to the salad bowl. Gently toss everything together. Arrange the watercress, potatoes, cucumber salad and chicken between 2 plates or wide bowls. Sprinkle over the reserved parsley and chervil to serve.

Cooks notes: If you’ve a small appetite, keep some of the cooked potatoes, sliced chicken and watercress back and use them for a lunchbox salad the next day.

Chicken, spinach and chickpea tagine with harissa and preserved lemon

Harissa is a spicy blend of chilli, herbs and garlic. We’ve advised using half to start, tasting and adding more towards the end, depending on your preference for heat. We’re using baby spinach here, which can be wilted down in the pan in handfuls. If you make it again with larger leaf spinach, it’s best to blanch, refresh and chop it first.

100g wholemeal couscous
Olive oil
400g baby spinach
1 onion
1 large or 2 small garlic cloves
25g ginger
1 piece preserved lemon
1 tin chickpeas
​300g diced chicken breast
Oil for frying e.g. sunflower or light olive
1 tbsp harissa
1 tsp dried mint
75g dried apricot pieces
15g fresh coriander
Salt and pepper

Boil a kettle of water. Put the couscous in a heatproof bowl. Add a glug of oil and a good pinch of salt. Pour over enough of the boiled water from the kettle to just cover the couscous. Leave to stand. Wash the spinach. Peel, halve and finely slice the onion. Peel and crush, grate or finely chop 1 large or 2 small garlic cloves. Peel and finely grate the ginger. Scoop the flesh out of the preserved lemon and discard it. Finely chop the rind; it is this that you want (the flesh is too salty).

Drain the tin of chickpeas into a colander and rinse with cold water. Season the chicken with a little salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy based pan. Add the chicken. Fry, turning the pieces now and then, until golden brown.

Don’t crowd the pan, cook in 2 batches if needs be. Remove them to a plate. Add the onion and a splash more oil to the same pan. Fry gently, stirring now and then for 10 minutes. Add a splash of water if it looks like it might catch at any point. After 10 minutes, add the garlic, ginger, half the harissa, the preserved lemon, dried mint and dried apricots.

Gently warm for 1 minute. Add chicken back to the pan, with the chickpeas. Add 250ml of water, cover and cook on a medium heat for 10 minutes. Check the liquid at intervals and add a little more water if needed. While the tagine is simmering, wash half the pack of coriander. Shake dry and roughly chop the leaves. After 10 minutes, add the spinach in handfuls, stirrring it in until just wilted, a few seconds at a time, per handful. Taste the dish and add a little more harissa depending on how hot you like your food.

Fluff the couscous up with a fork. Divide between 2 serving bowls or plates. Stir the coriander leaves into the tagine, check the seasoning and serve with the couscous.

Cooks notes: Preserved lemons are a staple in my cupboard. If you fancy having a go at making them, we sell the kits from time to time. Although it’s easy to buy them ready-made in jars now. It’s just the skins that are eaten, not the flesh. Often used in tagines, they’re also good for perking up salads or salsa.

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