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Chicken Matters

You don't have to be a vegetarian to understand the importance of animal welfare. As a carnivorous person myself, I have to put up with the fact that animals have to die. Nevertheless, it matters about animal welfare, and it's best if the animal's life is reasonably good for quite a while before it ends up being eaten.

Chickens are a particularly notable example of an animal that can be produced in conditions of varying degrees of appallingness, and then sold on to the meat-eating public without folks ever knowing what a shocking life the chicken had to endure, and yet it's also possible to produce chickens humanely. Can you taste the difference?!

Chickens are also of note in that they produce another popular food product: EGGS. When you buy wine, you might ask what the vintage is, but when you buy eggs, it's worth asking what conditions the chickens lived in when they produced those eggs.

This whole issue of chicken welfare was raised in 2007 in some high-profile campaigns by celebrity chefs including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver. The essence of these campaigns was to make people aware of the conditions in which chickens were kept, so then people could make informed decisions about what to eat, rather than allowing the factory-farming industry to hide the shocking truth.

It's interesting, because it's not a preaching campaign to get people to sign up to vegetarianism, but is more a matter of making an informed choice. If your view is "I don't care about animal welfare", well, you should at least know what conditions battery hens are kept in, and if you still have the same view, then at least you're consistent rather than hypocritical. Another way to put it is: "Would you eat those eggs if you knew the conditions of the chickens that laid them?". This has been put to the test, and quite a lot of people who previously hadn't really thought about chickens and eggs suddenly decided they'd rather go for free range now they knew the truth! It's like a poultry variant of Soylent Green!

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall found that no-one would let him film in a battery chicken farm, so he set up his own! He had intensively farmed chickens crammed into a chickenhouse, and in another area the more humanely farmed BARN chickens, and on another plot some actual free range chickens. The programme "Hugh's Chicken Run" was a remarkable insight into what goes on in chicken production, and quite a lot of people decided after seeing it that they'd buy free range or barn in preference to intensively-farmed, if they could afford it.

Indeed, if you think about it, it's a bit much having 17 chickens per square metre, and them only living 39 days.

More about this at , , and British Hen Welfare Trust - now in conjunction with Compassion in World Farming

Jamie Oliver took a different approach and killed a chicken on stage. This made it on the news, as if chickens are never killed! The show, "Jamie's Fowl Dinners" had people at dinner tables about to be served chicken seeing for themselves the processes involved in producing the chicken, from when it was hatched to when it was killed. If anyone wants to make a big fuss about the on-stage death of a chicken, or the gassing of cute fluffy chicks, or the chickens crammed into cages, it would be more appropriate that they make a fuss about the widespread industry of chicken factory farming as a whole rather than grumble about Jamie Oliver slaughtering a few critters on stage to demonstrate to folks the things that go on.

So, there it is, meat-eating without hypocrisy.

Looking at the shops, eggs are clearly marked "free range", "barn eggs", or "caged hen eggs". You can decide before you buy. You can even do experiments at home to see if you can taste the difference.

Anyway, why are free range eggs so expensive? It would be understandable if they were 10% dearer or 20% dearer, but they are currently, (2008), two and a half times the price! This suggests there is something funny going on. Can it be the market is rigged to keep factory farming in business?

One way you can get free range eggs without paying much for them is to keep your own chickens. You keep them on the garden, not in a hamster cage.

In a supermarket, the eggs are clearly marked, but what about the chickens? Can you get a free range chicken to roast for the Sunday Lunch? Oddly, the chickens are sometimes not as clearly marked, and in some places they're not marked at all because ALL of the chickens are factory farmed. However it's still worth asking, which indicates to the management that there is a huge demand for free range chicken!

Restaurants advertising "free range chicken" on the menu are onto a good thing, because the cost of the meat is only a small component of the total on the bill. Free range chicken sells much better and it is a good marketable point. "It's finger-lickin' good!" is a trademark of Kentucky Fried Chicken, whereas "Free range chicken here!" is a freely usable open-source good marketing point which any restaurant can use provided the chicken on sale is genuinely free range.

Organic or Free Range?: There is a difference, and generally something can't be both organic and free range. "Organic" means it's approved by the Soil Association, and the animal has to be fed exclusively on stuff which has no contaminants. In practice that can mean it's fed on stuff that looks a bit like dry dog food. The advantage of this is that various unusual things are eliminated from getting into the animal. In contrast, "Free Range" means the animal has some freedom to move about. Free range chickens tend to peck around a farmyard, and that means they pick up all sorts of stuff including trace elements. I have anecdotal evidence to suggest that eating free range chicken can produce a healthier state of mind where thinking works better. It would be interesting to do some scientific experiments to see if that is true or just imagined. Regardless of which it is, I'd guess people eating free range chicken in restaurants would believe they would feel better. I know that the people who designate things to be "Organic" are trying to do the right thing, but my own opinion is that Free Range is better!

Experimentally, I have observed that free range chicken eggs actually appear to be better than factory-farmed caged-chicken eggs. They appear to taste better, and the colour of the yolk seems to be richer on average. It's a bit like the way Red Leicester cheese used to be before they started cheating by putting colour into it! I could write a lot more about cheese, and more refined forms of scrog, but for now on this page, let's stick to the eggs.

Furthermore, I've noticed that some free range eggs seem to be better than others. Free range eggs bought from the corner shop seem oddly better quality than those from the supermarket. Also, eggs acquired from someone who happens to have a few chickens, appear better than supermarket free range eggs even though the supermarket free range eggs are rated as "free range". So, this raises interesting philosophical questions on the possibility that there are different levels of freedom, even for chickens! What if the supermarket free range eggs were only just above the limit for chicken-rights so as to qualify them as free-range, whereas the other places had access to chickens that were ultra-free, anarchic, or totally wild? It's a tempting notion, but it may be that what's going on has a slightly less idealistic causal system: It could be that the "really-free" chickens were pecking around wild terrain and eating naturally-occurring small wild prey items and were picking up trace-elements, whereas some of the supermarket "free-range" chickens had a reasonable level of freedom to move about but were fed on a diet of basic chicken-feed, or something "like dried dog food" as per the "Organic" system of production.

ChickenOther chicken-related items: chicken hypnosis , and Lucies Farm (where free range eggs are produced). Chicken image copyright World Vision, a charity where you can buy gifts for your friends resulting in chickens being donated to the Third World, (where they will be free range, nodoubt).

Also see Compassion in World Farming and their Chicken-Out Campaign.

Some of the eggs at Iceland are free range, and ALL of the eggs at Marks and Spencer are free range! I am hoping Iceland will start to offer Free Range Chickens too, especially if they are locally sourced.

Chickens (Chickuns) are mentioned at the Toxic Drums Serendipity page.

Compassion in World
FarmingIt's interesting to note that in a shopping experiment performed 2008/10/04 in the UK, free range eggs were found to be cheaper at the corner shop than at the supermarket. The corner shop free range eggs were cheaper even on the price paid over the counter, even before considering the fact that supermarkets are almost always further away and therefore there's an additional cost to consider in transport and time.

When travelling around such places as Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize, free range chickens can be seen pecking around in gardens and jungle, and it's obvious that there would be no cost advantage to keeping them caged. A moderate-sized piece of garden/jungle can support a certain number of chickens, in the same sort of way as the notion about guinea pigs keeping the lawn cut. In fact, for anyone considering keeping some jungle terrain, it's worth considering that adding some chickens can actually reduce the cost of upkeep.

Update: The situation on Free Range Chickens in Australia: Phil Westwood, Spokesman of the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia Inc highlights the situation about the Australian Egg Corporation and their attempt to redefine "free range" as something which could hardly be described as free at all!...

Phil Westwood:

At a time when most countries are tightening their environmental and farm animal welfare standards, here, the Australian Egg Corporation has launched plans for new standards for free range egg production which will allow de-beaking or beak trimming of hens as a matter of course, stocking densities on farms to increase from 1500 hens per hectare to a massive 20,000 and hens to be kept locked in sheds for up to 25 weeks.

Understandably, the genuine free range industry and consumers are in turmoil over this proposal. We agree with the Aust Egg Corporation that the current standards for free range egg production need to be changed - but they need to be tightened up to ensure that consumers are not misled. The changes proposed by the Australian Egg Corporation will allow large producers to charge customers a premium for branding their eggs as 'free range' without incurring the additional costs of genuine free range production methods. The proposed AECL stocking density would be a totally unsustainable land use.

We have set up a petition at (gone)

More info is on our blog at

Phil Westwood
Freeranger Eggs
Petition: What Does Free Range Mean? (gone)

Update 2011/08:

Because of industry and consumer concerns in Australia about the authenticity of eggs labelled as 'free range', a new website has been launched for the Free Range Farmers Association Inc.

The site has just gone live at

The site encourages genuine free range farmers to join the organisation, and provides consumers with a clear picture of real free range production as opposed to the intensive systems promoted by the Australian Egg Corporation which do not meet community values and expectations.

I have attached a letter which has been sent to New South Wales MPs, urging them to support the Truth in Labelling Bill which has been introduced into Parliament. It is hoped that similar legislation will be enacted nationally.

The website for Freeranger Eggs has also been upgraded at:

Phil Westwood
Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia Inc
Free Range Farmers Association Inc


To put the numbers in perspective, 1500 chickens per hectare is like having the chickens a couple of yards apart, whereas 20000 chickens per hectare? Well, you can imagine it by taking a one-metre-square piece of your front room carpet and imagining two chickens in that space. Not exactly "free" then! Also, de-beaking and beak-trimming are inhumane mutilations which are only done if the chickens are imprisoned so close together that they attack each-other.

There's also an honesty angle to this. If you bought eggs while under the impression that they are Free Range, if you found out the chickens were kept imprisoned and beakless, you'd feel cheated! It's like if you bought "organic" and then found out it was about as organic as a robot with an artificial leg. Free range chickens have to have some freedom, otherwise they are not free range.

Take a look at to see what folks are saying about fair play for those chooks!

It's ironical. Australia is a vast continent with a small population. You'd think there'd be no problem with there being enough space for chickens?

Other free-range birds: rhea (like an emu) - see rhea egg

There are a great many chickens in Panama where the free-range idea has taken on a different level. Chickens are free-range like cats are! They wander around the town and in the jungle, and forage. People don't mind their gardens being foraged upon, because the chickens eat grubs, garden pests, leftovers, anything edible to a chicken. I have seen a chicken tackle a nest of large ants, picking them off in short succession. Chickens scratch about, their claws unearthing all manner of critters to predate upon. It is a diet of great variety, and so the chicken ends up with plenty of those trace elements that people are short of. This could explain why the eggs are so good.Rhea Egg

Also, free-range eggs from free range rheas are a possibility. See Rhea Egg