Free range chickens must be treated like Queens, right? Obviously, a free range label gives them the prestigious status of being able to roam where they want, when they want?
But how are free range chickens treated really? Is it all sunshine and roses? Green fields and flower meadows? Or is it all simply clever marketing?
What Does Free Range Actually Mean?
Unfortunately, free range is more a marketing tool than anything. Deep down, you probably know this already, right?
You see the words free range slapped onto the side of an egg box or a whole chicken in the supermarket and envision chickens running wild and free before returning to their hen house to lay an egg or two before heading back out for more frolicking.
But this is far from the reality of free range.
The RSPCA state that for a chicken to have free range status, it must have a square metre of space which it shares with no more than 9 other chickens. It must get the luxury of 10cm of feeder to itself and must only share a drinker with 9 other birds.
A free range chicken must also have some access to outside space and daylight. Each chicken must have 1 square metre of space outside for itself.
Take an A4 sheet of paper… That’s roughly how much space each free range chicken gets inside. Not quite what you expected, right?
It’s Like 15 Adults Sharing an Average Studio Flat
How Long Do Free Range Chickens Spend Outside?
The simple answer to this question is: Who knows?!
Unfortunately, guidelines are quite vague. In order for a chicken to have been labelled as free range, it needs to have access to an outside area for part of the day. Guidelines also suggest that it is able to spend half of its lifetime (a lifetime being 56 days approximately) outside.
Again, this still feels like it goes against what free range is marketed as.
Are Free Range Chickens Treated Well?
With beak trimming common, space still incredibly limited, time outside finite, floors often not clear of urine and faeces causing breast blisters and antibiotics constantly pumped into the birds, it’s certainly not sounding particularly pleasant.
In fact, it’s safe to say that free range chickens are not treated well – certainly nowhere near as well as the pretty labelling will have you believe.
What About Farm Fresh, British Chicken?
Supermarkets aren’t stupid. Willow Farm and Oakham Farm might sound quaint but they’re simply the product lines from Tesco and Marks and Spencer.
They’ll often be labelled with farm-fresh, higher-welfare or British… All buzz words that (I’m sorry to say) naive consumers buy into. Ultimately, big supermarkets have teams of people who focus on marketing their products to consumers. Using buzz words like these are one of the many tools they have in their arsenal.
These clever marketing words are often there to reassure consumers that they’re doing the right thing.
But it’s all nonsense. In fact, in the majority of cases, these chickens have had an even worse life than those chickens lucky enough to have been born into a free range environment.
What about Organic Chicken Eggs?
This is where things do begin to improve, somewhat. Organic chickens are held to far higher standards than any other sort of farmed chicken.
Feed must be organic, antibiotics must be used sparingly, space is a given right. Daylesford has put together a great comparison article that’s well worth a read so you can fully understand the differences between free range and organic chicken farming.
Where Should You Buy Your Chicken?
Unfortunately, if you want to buy chicken or eggs whilst retaining some modicum of humanity then you will need to avoid the supermarkets. Instead, head to your local farm shop where you can see the chickens for yourself, roaming freely.
If you visit a farm shop on an actual farm with no signs of chickens freely running around then stick the car in to reverse and get out of there.
The other option is to opt for organic. Organic chicken must be free range but must also pass even more stringent requirements:
- Inside, they share 1 square metre with 9 other chickens
- Outside, each chicken gets 4 square metres of space (4 times higher than free range)
- Slower growing breeds are generally used which means they develop naturally
- Antibiotics are only used if completely necessary but avoided where possible
- Only fed organic feed
Organic Eggs are Around 66% More Expensive than Free Range Eggs and 275% More Expensive than Indoor Eggs
Eggs are a staple ingredient up and down the country but trying to buy eggs ethically (and not just with an ethical label) can become somewhat of a minefield.
When you realise how free range chickens are treated really, you soon learn that the only option you have is to find your local farm shop and start buying local.