Free range chickens in a garden

Different countries have different regulations for farming chickens, and some countries have no regulations at all.

Here, we look at the regulations for chicken farming in Europe and around the world, and explain which labels to look for when you’re shopping.

How are chickens farmed in Europe?

Within the EU, regulation is the highest in the world. EU law prohibits the use of growth hormones, extreme confinement, feeding of chicken to chicken, heavy use of antibiotics, and the bleaching of carcasses after they’re slaughtered.

These standards are applied to all imported chicken, as well as to the chickens reared within Europe.

What is chlorinated chicken?

Chicken meat produced outside of the EU can be treated with a chlorine spray or rinse to reduce pathogens that may cause illness. This process can be used to compensate for poor hygiene standards during the slaughter and preparation of chickens.

In the UK we take a more proactive approach – maintaining high farming and production standards in order to eliminate food safety risks. Ultimately, a healthy environment means that birds do not need a chemical rinse before reaching our dinner plates.

What does higher welfare mean?

A higher-welfare system gives chickens the following conditions:

  • Good lighting: Either natural daylight, or systems that replicate natural day and night lighting patterns.
  • Physical stimulation: Bales of straw, scatters of pellets or frames to perch on encourage the chickens to move around, exercise and perch – all things they do naturally, given the chance.
  • Controlled use of drugs: Antibiotics can only be used when really needed, and have to be prescribed by a vet.
  • Lower stocking density: This means that there are less chickens per square metre, so more room to move and stretch their wings, as well as a cleaner environment.
  • Vegetarian feed: Believe it or not, chickens in many countries are fed the remains of other chickens.
  • Health records: Chicken in higher-welfare systems are assessed for health, often by monitoring and recording their ability to walk, as well as any medical issues that affect them.

What does free-range mean?

‘Free-range’ is a term that can mean different things around the world. Ideally, free-range chickens roam outdoors on pasture or wooded areas. According to EU regulations, a free-range chicken must live for at least 56 days, and have access to the outdoors for at least half of its life.

However, chickens only go outside in good conditions: not too hot or too cold, not too windy, not too bright, no threat of predators and, importantly, there has to be something worth going outside for – grass to peck, and trees to rest under, for example.

So in many countries, especially very cold or very hot ones, it is possible that free-range chickens never go outside at all. For this reason, in these countries it’s often better to focus on providing the right environment indoors.

Don’t be fooled by labelling

Beware of wording that seems to promise better welfare, but is in fact just a marketing tactic.

For example, in America, the term ‘natural’ can be used to mean only that it has been minimally processed and contains no other ingredients – not that the chicken had lead a natural life.

What chicken to buy: a guide

Chicken with no welfare labelling: This will often be produced to the minimal legal requirements of the country you’re in. We don’t recommend this, as welfare and sustainability can be poor.

Red Tractor: This body works to ensure that farmers produce chicken that is traceable through the supply chain, is safe to eat, and has been produced responsibly.

Higher-welfare chicken: This is a good affordable option, providing it is certified by a third party such as RSPCA Assured or Certified Humane. It can be from indoor or free-range farms, and guarantees a higher level of animal welfare.

Free-range or pasture raised: You will usually pay a little more for free-range chicken. This is a great option if it’s from a farm where birds can benefit from quality outdoor space. RSPCA Assured, Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved certify these products too, which provides an extra level of care.

Organic: In most cases, organic will be the best option in terms of welfare and sustainability. However, this does depend on the country and the third-party certification. In Europe, organic chickens have to have free-range outdoor access, and will be at least 72 days old, which provides a really great-tasting, slow-grown bird.