Approximately one billion birds are reared for meat every year in the UK, with poultry accounting for around 50% of total consumed protein (Britishpoultry.org.uk). However, it is an industry that largely stays under the radar, with many consumers not knowing the journey their food has taken from farm to fork. This could be due in part to the industry’s self-sufficiency; it does not receive any subsidies from the Government, nor does it rely on large marketing campaigns; the demand typically remains strong without any external support. 

Chickens reared to produce meat are called ‘Broilers’ (not the most glamorous of names!), and those used to produce eggs are ‘Layers’. Different breeds are used, each having their own specific traits that make them suitable for different rearing systems. Ross and Cobb are fast-growing Broiler breeds, whilst Hubbard has more slower-growing breeds, used mainly for Free Range and Organic systems. Whilst the labeling of eggs is required by law to state the method of production, this is not the case for poultry meat. When buying eggs, consumers can choose between caged, barn, free-range or organic (at the time of writing we are under a UK housing order for Avian Influenza, meaning free range and organic are under a derogation that allows them still to be marketed as such, but they will not have access to the outdoors whilst disease risk remains high). 

The labeling of poultry meat products is a little more confusing and makes it harder for the consumer to make informed choices. Many supermarkets will use their own labeling and branding, which is misleading at best. There are no caged broilers in the UK; they can either be reared in barns indoors (intensive or extensive), free range, or organic, with many further sub-categories within these main three. The best way to help decipher how the birds have been reared is to look out for the assurance scheme labels. Assurance schemes ensure producers adhere to a strict set of standards to guarantee food safety, bird welfare, and traceability.  

UK assurance schemes go above and beyond the minimum welfare standards for laying hens and broilers, which are defined by law in the European Council Directives. Turkey, duck, and geese do not fall into these directives, and instead come under European conventions on animal welfare that set out recommendations instead. UK poultry farmers produce food to some of the World’s highest animal welfare and food safety standards, with approximately 95% being Red Tractor certified, and 90% of egg laying farms being Lion code assured (redtractor.org.uk).

The Red Tractor scheme covers food safety, welfare, and the environment, and is only used on British produce. It accredits indoor and outdoor farming systems with 3 logos; ‘certified standards’ (Intensive indoors; birds are reared indoors with 10% more space than European legislation, enrichment, and natural light), ‘enhanced welfare’ (Extensive indoors; underpinned by certified standards plus using slower growing breeds, and 29% more space) and ‘Free Range’ (birds have access to outdoor ranges for half their life, plus even more space indoors).

The RSPCA Assured scheme deals solely with animal welfare concerns. It accredits indoor and outdoor farming systems, similar to Red tractor ‘enhanced welfare’, and ‘free range’. 

The Soil Association (UK’s largest organic accreditation body) covers organic outdoor farming systems only and includes restrictions on pesticide use and GM ingredients. 

Typically, indoor reared broilers are slaughtered at 32-39 days old, free-range at 56 days old, and organic at 84 days. If birds are going to range outside, this would normally start at around 28 days, once they are big and strong enough. All systems adhere to strict antibiotic policies, with routine use prohibited. The poultry industry was the first UK livestock sector to voluntarily develop a strategy for the responsible use of antibiotics. In the 10 years that the British Poultry Council’s stewardship has been running there has been a reduction in total antibiotic use by 74.2%. 95.5% reduction in critically important antibiotics, and a 97.2% reduction in fluoroquinolones (Britishpoultry.org.uk). 

The UK is adept at producing high-quality, safe meat to suit every budget. Farmers care about their birds whether they are Red Tractor indoor reared or Organic. The way to improve animal welfare is to influence policy based on evidence and research, whilst also balancing sustainability and environmental concerns. A two-tier market has been discussed in great length whilst Brexit negotiations were happening, in which cheaper imports with lower standards fill the shelves in place of our entry-level offerings. This would mean that only those with a higher income will be able to afford the British. I believe everyone deserves healthy, nutritious, and safe British food!

Proud to work for such an innovative and forward-thinking industry, I would like to help bridge the knowledge gap between consumers and producers. Often there are misconceptions based on a lack of information (especially the UK market), or historical practices. Hopefully, this blog can help shed a light! Whether you eat meat or not, making informed choices is key to help keep British #foodoneverytable. 

Free Range (Red Tractor Free Range)Indoor (Red Tractor Certified Standards)
Placement of day old chicksPlacement of day old chicks
Enrichment available: perches, bales and pecking objects, plus natural light through windowsEnrichment available: perches, bales and pecking objects, plus natural light through windows
Free Range birds able to start ranging at approximately 28days old. (They have access to the range for at least half their life). Indoor reared birds have fully climate controlled sheds to keep them comfortable.
Collection for slaughter at 56 days old. Catching of birds happens at night when it’s dark and they are most calm, due to the flighty nature of the birds.Collection for slaughter between day 32-39. Catching of birds can happen at any time of day.

Written by Cat Hart