The chicken conumdrum. What do I buy?

The big question when shopping is, organic, free-range, indoor, corn-fed chicken… what do I buy?

It’s no secret that chickens bred for industrial-scale production have been the worst off.

They have been reared the fastest and packed into huge sheds where they can’t move.

But things are changing and we are able to see how the bird has been reared with labels such as free-range or organic.

The thing is…. are they actually getting a better level of welfare?

What we do know, is that the flavour and nutritional value is improved.

The reality of farming chickens & different methods

We know that depending on what they are fed and the living conditions they are in, impacts the taste of the chicken.

So, it all comes back to quality.

Quality of life equals the quality of meat.

Stress can make the meat taste dry and acidic.

And then there is the breed of poultry.

Some are bred to grow rapidly and others, like the Hubbard, are slow growers.

So, let’s take a look at the different terms used and what they really mean.

Organic, free-range, indoor, corn-fed chicken


These chickens spend all their life indoors.

They are farmed on an industrial scale with the highest density of chickens (19 – 20 per m2)

They are killed at a young age to produce more tender meat but lack flavour.

Sadly, 94% of the chickens raised in the UK are still intensively farmed.


These chickens live longer.

And get access to the outdoors which means they have more protein.

But… although it sounds great, they only have limited time outside.

And sometimes many of them don’t even get outside due to the small ‘popholes’ they use to access it.

This means their stress levels can still be high as they spend a lot of time indoors and still have more chickens per m2 (13 – 15 per m2)

In the UK, only 5% of chickens are raised free-range.


This is the best way to raise chickens for their welfare and for overall flavour.

These chickens are usually bred on smallholdings.

They access the outdoors and have more space than any other farmed chicken (5 -12 birds per sq m).

And are slow-growing breeds and fed a range of food.

Organic chickens have to be grown to at least 70 days which is more in line with how nature intended.

This means the chickens are actually healthier to eat, containing less saturated fat but higher omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart.

Plus, they are only given anti-biotics if really necessary.

In a nutshell, ‘organic’ is the highest rating for welfare standards.

The bad news… in the UK only 1% of chickens raised are organic.

A very happy chicken

Corn fed

This means nothing in relation to animal welfare.

Chickens are omnivorous, so they scratch around to eat plants, seeds, insects and worms.

So feeding them corn doesn’t mean better quality (that’s a bit of marketing spin), it usually means they are being fattened up faster.

Injected with water

Large-scale producers often bulk up meat with water.

They say it’s to improve the meat but it adds weight which is how we pay for it.

Over a third of the weight of poultry can be due to water added.

That’s why buying locally sourced or knowing how your chicken was reared is so important.

It benefits the animals’ welfare and it benefits the flavour.

The cost of organic, free-range, indoor, corn-fed chicken

It’s become a bit of a minefield buying chicken.

There’s a lot to think about and unstitch especially because marketers work very hard at convincing the consumer that their product is ticking all the right boxes.

And let’s not forget that price does come into our spending.

We may all want to buy organic and know the bird has had a good life.

But due to the extra costs, the farmers have to outlay in raising these birds, we pay more which can seem expensive when feeding your family.

So, perhaps instead of compromising on quality, we eat less and buy better.

After all, less is more.


So, what’s the answer to the question ‘organic, free-range, indoor, corn-fed chicken… what do I buy? ‘

In a nutshell, here are a few questions you should remember to ask when buying poultry:

  1. What bird is it? (Hubbard is the best)
  2. How old was it when it was killed? (70 days are the slow-grow birds)
  3. How many birds are there per house? (100’s of birds per house, not 1000’s)

Ultimately, you want to buy organic.

Failing that, free-range.

It’s never easy but if we look after the farmers raising their animals in happy, stress-free environments.

Then we will encourage more farmers to go organic.

And as they say, it’s the consumers’ wallet that can lead to change.

If you want to learn more about sustainable farming and climate change, check out my post, here


The Independent