Is your chicken free range?
A couple of weeks ago a long standing customer asked me if the chicken I use in my ready meals was free range. My immediate answer was yes, I then paused and said “I think so, let me check”.
I immediately went to my main supplier and asked the question: “”is the chicken I buy from you free range”? Their answer was no, but our supplier says it is nearly free range. This made me realise that I had taken for granted that the chicken I was using was free range – given that when I last asked the question (realistically about 3 years ago), I was told it was free range.
My supplier said he would speak to his supplier (my man will speak to your man….) and ask exactly how their chickens were reared. In the meantime I investigated exactly what constituted free range. To be honest this, in my mind, opened up a can of worms, so I called trading standards to see if they could enlighten me jargon free. They were incredibly helpful, but the links they led me to just increased the complexity of the use of the term “free range”. My next ports of call were to contact DEFRA (department for the environment, food and rural affairs), BVA (British veterinary association) and BPC (British poultry council). The BPC was very helpful, happy to talk to me and answer any questions I had. From these conversations and reading the links they directed me to, I came to the following conclusions about free range chicken rearing in this country. (Click here to read my conclusions). Click here to find out about the SMT’s – Special Marketing Terms for Poultry.
I then decided I needed to speak to some poultry growers/producers and hear their perspective. I only spoke to large producers as they would ultimately be the people I would be using as my suppliers. (Small free range chicken producers, who I, as a caterer would be able to purchase chicken from (given the due diligence I need to show) would not be a viable financial option for my ready meals). I have so far spoken to 2 producers. In my opinion they were very open about how they reared their product and proud of what they do. One was a free range producer and the other used the “environmental enrichment“ method. Both methods are open to interpretation to a degree. I believe you can only truly understand how the chicken has been reared under a specific label if you speak/visit the actual grower of that chicken. Most of the terms used on chicken packaging are marketing terms and in many cases have a fairly broad interpretation.
It is useful to understand that the majority of free range chicken and other chickens raised in this country (not including organic) are the same breed.
It is inevitable that the longer the chickens life is and the more space it has the more expensive the chicken is going to be.
What is not always transparent (in my opinion) is whether the chicken actually has a better life.
With regards to taste and eating quality, again in my opinion, if the chicken has been reared and fed well (which means has adequate space to develop muscle) these will be good.
It is important to note that chickens in Britain have not been fed growth enhancers since the 1990’s. If they are given antibiotics, strict regulations exist with regards to withdrawal prior to the chicken entering the food chain.
In 2008/2009 Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall did much to highlight the way mass produced chicken is reared in this country. I believe that the two producers I have spoken to below do not rear chickens in the way portrayed by their investigations.
My question is this, given the information you have: “Which type of chicken would you like me to use in my ready meals?”
The two options below both produce chickens which I believe are reared humanely and have an excellent eating quality.
If I use chickens reared by a producer using the following environmental enhancement method (St Georges):
- Stocking density: 38kg/m²
- Age of chicken: 40 – 42 days
- As well as the usual hay bales etc. most of their sheds (working towards 90% by end of year) have windows
- The cost of a single portion of chicken and mushroom pie will be around £5.95
- These chickens are reared in the Midlands
If I use chicken using the following free range method – traditional (Caldecotts):
- Stocking density 27kg/m² (only 5000 chickens per shed as opposed to 10000 – 20000)
- Age of chicken: 56 days
- Access to usual additional outdoor space daily, from 21 days old.
- The cost of a single portion of chicken and mushroom pie will be around £6.55
- These chickens are reared in Worcestershire.
The 3rd option is the Sutton Hoo free range chicken – total freedom:
- Stocking density is: vast. The chickens are reared in fields (40 acres) with moveable sheds and allowed to roam outdoors at will.
- Age of chicken: minimum 84 days
- The chickens are given access to the outside from 2 weeks and are fed outside. This encourages them to go outside thus giving them more exercise and allowing more muscular development, improving eating quality.
- The breed of chicken is Suffolk White (a slow growing breed)
- The cost of a single portion of chicken and mushroom pie will be around (waiting for info)
- These chickens are reared near Sudbury in Suffolk.
If you have managed to get to the end of this blog, thank you and well done!
If you let me know which of the above options you would like me to use in my ready meals, please contact me. I am sure you appreciate that I can only use one of the options in my ready meals.
If you are booking a private dinner or using my catering service, you will be offered the option of which chicken you would like.
If you would like to order a fresh Sutton Hoo chicken, click here.