What kind of chicken is best to buy – for the birds, and for your health? What’s just greenwash? Eco expert Andy Kenworthy reveals what you need to know before you hit the shops.
A recent Colmar Brunton survey of 1,017 Kiwis found three of the top four choices for the New Zealand dinner table featured chicken. According to the Poultry Industry Association, the average New Zealander eats about 31 kilograms of chicken per year and chicken has been the number one choice for protein for the past ten years at the supermarket. Consumption of chicken meat has more than doubled since accurate records began in 1986 when annual consumption was just 14 kilograms.
Many of those who avoid other meats make an exception for chicken: a Ministry of Health report found two percent of New Zealanders are what has been termed ‘pollotarians’. Basically, we like eating chicken.
These days we know that not all chickens are created equal, but with a free-range organic bird costing up to three times as much as the cheapest one, what are we really paying the extra for, and how bad is it when we pluck out the bargain bucket option?
As well as looking out for the certification labels, another great way of ensuring you are supporting the right producers is to go local. Meet them face-to-face and ask to visit the facility to see for yourself. The main measure taken with organic eggs in addition to measures similar to those in certified free-range systems is that the chickens are fed carefully controlled organic food.
FACT #1: The average New Zealander eats around 31 kilograms of chicken per year – that’s more the double the amount we ate in 1986.
The Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Adults published by the Ministry of Health recommend at least one serving per day of lean meat, including chicken, principally for the protein, fats, selenium and iron it provides. The Ministry says we should remove chicken skin, and only occasionally eat it fried. A serving size of between 100 and 200 grams is considered appropriate.
Disappointingly for organic advocates like me, a comprehensive study of the available scientific literature on organic foods conducted in 2010 and led by Alan Dangour of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that evidence is lacking for nutritional health benefits from the consumption of organically produced foods. The report was supported by the UK Food Standards Agency.
However, the appendix of the report shows that some nutrients, such as beta-carotene, are as much as 53 percent higher in organic food, and a 2009 EU-wide report on organic crops found that levels of nutritionally desirable compounds, such as antioxidants and vitamins, were higher in organic crops, while levels of nutritionally undesirable compounds, such as toxic chemicals, mycotoxins and metals, including cadmium and nickel, were lower.
Assuming that these findings also apply to organically reared chickens, there has been no specific study performed to track the extent to which such health benefits might be passed on to people eating the chickens. However, Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst at the US Center for Food Safety, points to studies which found that organic chickens contained 38 percent more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and notes that according to a 2010 US study, fewer than six percent of organic birds were infected with salmonella, compared with almost 39 percent of conventionally reared ones.
There is some evidence that intensive rearing of poultry and associated antibiotic use contribute to the development of the lethal H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, otherwise known as bird flu. So you’re probably not taking your life in your hands every time you chow down on cheap chicken, but when it comes to health, there’s an element of, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”
FACT #2: As well as protein, chicken contains beneficial fats, selenium and iron. A serving size of between 100 and 200 grams is considered appropriate.
What you need to know
For many of us, though, it’s not just a question of what’s best for us, but what’s also best for the chickens. Minimum standards are set out by the Animal Welfare (Meat Chickens) Code of Welfare 2012 issued under the Animal Welfare Act 1999. This makes it an offence to cause “unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress” to chickens. Quality and type of food are regulated, shed temperatures must be kept within a healthy range, and clean water must always be available.
The birds must have shelter from adverse weather, pests and predators, and be handled with appropriate care. The stocking density in sheds must not exceed 38 kilograms live weight per square metre of floor space, which equates to 30-odd chickens per square metre. The shed must be properly ventilated, with good-quality litter covering the entire floor. Lighting for adult chickens must be sufficient for the animals to see one another and their surroundings, and must include at least four hours of darkness.
Slaughtering must be done humanely by prescribed methods that minimise suffering. Acceptable methods include electrical stunning followed by neck dislocation and bleeding, neck dislocation alone, carbon dioxide asphyxiation, or immediate fragmentation or maceration for unhatched eggs and day-old chicks, which is essentially putting them through a high-speed mincing machine.
Bizarrely, this brand new code fails to address the issue of free-range or organic systems, leaving it entirely in the hands of non-government, third-party labelling organisations to define and regulate those systems for meat and laying chickens.
RNZSPCA Blue Tick
The Blue Tick system offers far more detailed guidelines on how farmers should meet the Code of Welfare standards than are offered within the legislation itself. It also has more requirements for trained staff, regular monitoring and written records.
The policy documents state: “Some of the minimum standards within the Codes are repeated and elaborated on in these standards where extra conditions were considered necessary or where extra emphasis was required.” For chickens reared to this standard try here.
Free Range Egg & Poultry New Zealand Ltd (FREPNZ)
In addition to the legal requirements, chickens certified by FREPNZ must have access to an outside area during daylight hours, where there is shade, shelter and vegetation suitable for the chickens to browse.
The stocking density in a shed must not exceed 28 kilograms of live birds per square metre of floor space, unless there is mechanical ventilation, when it must not exceed 30 kilograms of live birds per square metre of floor space.
Strangely, FREPNZ does allow continuous dim lighting, despite this appearing to contradict the legal minimum darkness requirements in the Welfare Code. Beak trimming,toe trimming, or any other mutilation is not permitted. For chickens reared to this standard try here.
Free-range and organic
AsureQuality also sets a lower stocking density of 21 kilograms live weight per square metre, or 10 birds per square metre of floor space in fixed sheds. Mobile sheds are allowed 30 kilograms live weight, or 16 birds, per square metre. There is a limit of 1,500 meat chickens per shed and a minimum of four square metres per meat chicken in fixed sheds, and 2.5 square metres for chickens in mobile housing.
The standard also stipulates the minimum age at slaughter to ensure the chickens have spent at least one-third of their lives with access to pasture. This would normally be a minimum of 51 days.
The AsureQuality standard allows infrared beak (IRB) tipping at the hatchery for day-old chicks if it’s done to improve the health of the chickens and it is performed under correct conditions. For chickens reared to this standard try www.kipdalefarms.co.nz, which uses mobile housing.
Stocking rates for BioGro certified chicken vary depending on the type of flooring, from only five birds per square metre on a flat floor, to 13 per square metre on perches. The stocking rate must not exceed 1,500 birds per hectare. Any mutilation is prohibited. For chickens reared to this standard visit here for a list of suppliers.
For more about the RNZSPCA’s Blue Tick scheme, look no further.