Making sense of chicken meat labels

How much do you know about how chickens raised for meat are really treated?

LAST UPDATED: 7 December 2020

The modern phenomenon of 'cheap chicken' has come at an enormous cost to the animals and constitutes the world's biggest animal welfare disaster. Every year around the world, billions of chickens are raised intensively for their meat, and in conditions that would shock the average chicken consumer.

With no consistent or legally enforceable definitions for chicken production systems in Australia, it's not easy to understand what the various logos and terms on packaging mean. In the table below, we have attempted to demystify chicken production to assist more people to make kinder choices.

It's important to note that while living standards will vary, there are welfare issues common across all production systems — be they factory farmed, free range or RSPCA Approved.

Certification systems included in table below:

  • Industry standard outlined in the Model of Code Practice (MCoP)
  • RSPCA Approved Indoor
  • Free Range Egg & Poultry Australia (FREPA)
  • RSPCA Approved Outdoor
  • Australian Certified Organic
1
Birds must be given access to an outdoor area once reasonably feathered and by 21 days of age at the latest. Access to the outdoors must be during daylight hours for a minimum of 8 hours access per 24-hour period. Maximum stocking densities for outdoor areas are not specified under the FREPA certification scheme. The outdoor area for RSPCA Approved Outdoor broilers “has to be at least the same size as the shed floor, and needs to provide palatable vegetation cover and at least 12m2 of overhead shade per 1,000 birds”. The maximum stocking density for Australian Certified Organic broilers is 2,500 birds per hectare.
2
Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals- Livestock at Slaughtering Establishments (page 14): “Before stunning, birds should be suspended head downwards from shackle lines for a short time (preferably for a minimum of 30 seconds and no longer than three minutes for domestic fowl).” The RSPCA Approved Farming scheme requires shackle lines to have a breast comforter for birds and the maximum time suspended should be less than 60 seconds.
Do birds have access to the outdoors?
No
No
Yes1
Yes1
Yes1
Do birds have access to perches when inside sheds?
No
Yes
No
Yes
Yes
Is environmental enrichment required?
No
Yes
Outdoor access
Yes
Maybe
How many birds can be kept per square metre when in the shed? [Estimates based on an average 2kg bird near the end of the rearing period]
Up to 20
Up to 17
Up to 15 + access to outdoors
Up to 17 + access to outdoors
5-12
Can birds be exposed to periods of artificial light to speed up weight gain?
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Maybe
Are birds slaughtered before they reach maturity?
Yes (4-6 weeks)
Yes (4-6 weeks)
Yes (4-6 weeks)
Yes (4-6 weeks)
Yes (commonly from 8-12 weeks)
Are birds bred to grow unnaturally fast?
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Are day-old chicks deemed 'unviable' ground up alive in a 'macerator' or gassed to death?
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
At the slaughterhouse, can birds be 'live-shackled'2 — suspended upside down and dragged through electrified water?
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes

Ethical concerns in all chicken farming systems

Consumers should be aware that there are ethical and welfare issues common to all chicken farming systems — including certified free range and certified organic.

Chickens have been selectively bred to grow larger and at three times their natural rate, impacting significantly on their physical well-being, as this rapid growth puts enormous pressure on their hearts and immature skeletons. And ultimately, both 'factory farmed' and 'free range' animals are trucked to the same slaughterhouses — a process that for chickens killed for their meat is particularly terrifying.

Broiler chicken
A chicken suffering under his enormous weight in an Australian factory farm. Photo: Farm Transparency Project

On the first day of their life, tiny chicks are assessed for 'viability'. Chicks deemed 'unviable' will be either gassed to death or 'minced alive' in industrial 'macerators'. Millions of day-old chicks are killed this way every year in Australia, and this practice is not only legal but routine across all farming systems. 'Viable' chicks will be grown in huge sheds and killed only a few weeks later.

When they reach 'slaughter weight', birds need to be caught by hand then put on trucks to be transported to the slaughterhouse. This is a rough and frightening process that is done under time pressure. Birds are grabbed by the legs and stuffed into transport crates with hardly any room to move. Many birds may have bones broken or dislocated in the process.

All chickens — whether factory farmed or free range — will be slaughtered in similar facilities at a young age, when they are in fact still just juvenile birds. The processes used to render chickens unconscious prior to slaughter can be harrowing.

What's the alternative?

Current demand for chicken can only be met by the combination of farming and slaughter practices outlined above. But this demand would never have existed if people knew the truth about how animals were being treated.

Refusing the most intensively farmed products is an important first step to eliminating some of the worst cruelties inflicted on chickens. But such entrenched farming practices will only be dismantled if caring consumers also make the choice to eat less or no meat. Put simply, they only exist because too many animals are being eaten.

We can't turn back the clock, but we can shape a kinder future. And what we eat is a powerful agent for change. As people become aware of the ethical issues relating to chicken farming and slaughter, more and more are choosing plant-based alternatives to chicken that are readily available in most supermarkets.


Making sense of terms and labels

These are the logos and terms behind the certification schemes outlined in the above table. It's not an exhaustive list of the brands behind chicken meat products but instead a snapshot of some of the most common accreditation labels you're likely to see in the supermarket.

'RSPCA Approved'

The RSPCA Approved system accredits chicken farms to RSPCA standards. Chickens on these farms can be raised in either a free range or indoor system. Chickens in an RSPCA Approved indoor farm have no access to an outdoor area. However, the welfare standards are higher than in conventional factory farms. Freedom Farms products come from chickens raised on an RSPCA Approved indoor farm. Only RSPCA Approved products that are also labelled 'free range' come from farms where the chickens were raised with access to an outdoor range.

RSPCA Approved

'Certified Free Range'

Unfortunately, there is no legal definition of the term free range in Australia so standards between farms can vary. This logo on the packaging indicates that the chickens were raised on farms with access to an outdoor range and adhering to the standards outlined above.

Free range chicken label

'Certified Organic'

Certified organic chicken products come from chickens kept on farms which exceed standards in the best free range facilities. However, simply the word 'organic' on packaging can sometimes mislead people to think the welfare of chickens meets certified organic standards — when it may simply mean that chickens are fed organic feed. These logos on the packaging indicate that the chickens were raised on a certified organic free range farm.

Organic chicken

Other claims and logos

There are many other phrases and terms used on chicken products that may be perceived to suggest higher welfare such as 'raised in large barns', 'range reared', 'corn fed', 'grain fed', 'chemical free', 'Australian chicken' and 'Australian made'. The majority of these do not signify a higher standard of welfare than factory farmed chicken. Even the term 'RSPCA Approved' could suggest to some consumers that the birds lived in a free ranging environment ... but the RSPCA also accredits intensive, indoor systems.

If there is no certified free range, certified organic or RSPCA Approved free range logo on the packaging, the chickens have almost certainly been raised in factory farms.

A common claim by some in the chicken meat industry is that the chicken was raised 'cage free'. However, chickens raised for their meat are never raised in cages, regardless of the production system (only hens kept for the production of cage eggs are kept in cages). This claim is deceptive in making people believe that what is on offer is a 'better welfare' product. If there is no information provided that the product is certified free range or certified organic, 'cage free' chicken almost certainly comes from animals who were factory farmed.


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