It can be difficult to know if organic chicken really is any different from the cheapest on offer and, crucially, if it’s worth the extra price. Many of us are willing to spend upwards of £15 on the occasional Sunday roast for one in a pub, £22 including a nice glass of wine. But when it comes to buying chicken in a supermarket we can’t help but question what’s the difference?

We eat a staggering 900 million chickens a year in the UK

Unsurprising many people who are searching for quality and value opt for the middle-ground.

But, what these people don’t know is while there’s a huge gulf between intensively farmed and organic chickens; there’s less of a difference between intensively farmed chicken and “technically” free-range chicken.

There’s also less of a difference between organic chicken and “genuinely” free-range chickens that are also reared to very high-welfare standards but not given organic feed.

Confused? This is why you could be paying over the odds for low quality chicken in pretty packaging.

Let us unravel it for you…

A Guardian and ITV investigation revealed the same chicken producers supply the major supermarkets, despite what the labels suggest.

Chicken connoisseurs

Chicken is by far the most popular meat now eaten in the UK, with an incredible 900 million chickens consumed each year.

Technically, we should be a nation of chicken connoisseurs by now; we should be seeking that perfect combination of a firm texture, with a deep flavour reflective of the environment the chicken has been reared in.

A combination that tells us the chicken has grown at a natural pace and has been fed a nutritionally rich diet that will in turn nourish us.

Sutton Hoo chicken | Genuinely free-range chickens in Norfolk
A bouquet by I Think That You Are Magic, donating £10 to charities in need

Yet, despite the huge quantities we consume – or perhaps partly because of it – our feelings towards poultry are more indifferent than appreciative.

We have let our standards slip and have come to accept sub-standard chicken as doing the job of filling a salad and filling a hole.

High in protein, low in fat

This has especially been the case since chicken, marketed as “high in protein and low in fat”, has become the go-to option for many diets and fitness regimes.

But the reality is often far from the dream we are being sold.

The most commonly consumed chicken in the UK is now the Ross variety, and yet you’ve probably never heard of it.

The Ross has been genetically bred to grow at a speed so unnatural it is the equivalent to a child weighing 28 stone by its third birthday, reports the RSPCA. This chicken is typically reared indoors and slaughtered at just 35 days old, by which time it can barely walk.

Organic farmers, however, more commonly opt for the Hubbard bird, which grows at a much more natural pace and has stronger legs, so it can roam free for its whole life.

These birds can live for more than double the amount of time, which means there is more texture and depth of flavour to the meat.

They are more expensive because they cost more to produce – feed accounts for about 70 per cent of the cost to rear a chicken and these birds are eating for double the amount of time. Plus, the older they get the more they consume.

This is why we can buy a whole factory-farmed chicken from around £2 per kilogram, while an organic chicken costs about four times that.

“I would implore people to eat less meat and buy better,” says organic farm Daylesford’s senior farm manager Richard Smith.

Genuinely free-range chicken:

Fosse Meadows
This farm in Leicester makes a point of growing its birds to 81 days for an extra mature flavour. Sold through Farmdrop; farmdrop.com

Sutton Hoo
Suffolk’s finest, there are no artificial lights in these chicken houses, which are mobile so new batches of chickens can always forage on fresh grass. Use Sutton Hoo’s postcode checker for a butchers near you; suttonhoochicken.co.uk

Pipers Farm
You can read all about how Pipers Farm‘s “properly” free range chickens are reared and slaughtered on the website. That’s the level of transparency we should have for all meat. Delivered to your door; pipersfarm.com

“Yes, there’s a price difference, but everybody wins – the animal, the farmer, the customer and the environment.”

Is organic better?

Welfare issues aside (we come to those in a moment), to be classed as organic in the UK, chickens have to be grown to at least 70 days to ensure they are growing at a pace more in line with how nature intended.

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

Organic birds are only given antibiotics if absolutely necessary. Whereas in in lower welfare systems they are given them regularly to prevent the spread of disease.

“Yes, there’s a price difference. But everybody wins – the animal, the farmer, the customer and the environment.” – Richard Smith, farmer

Organic certifying body The Soil Association also reports that farm animals account for almost two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the EU.

These are passed down to us through the food chain – you are what you eat, after all.

So, when it comes to buying the best chicken we would argue that organic chicken is undoubtedly better for our health and the chicken’s welfare. It also tastes better, which is not to be overlooked as food is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

But, we would also always ask a butcher or a chef three questions before consuming a chicken:
1. What bird is it?
2. How old was it when it was killed?
3. How many birds are there per house?

The answers you are looking for are Hubbard, at least 70 days and hundreds – not thousands – per house.

Organic chicken typically meets these standards; but genuinely free-range – compared to standard free-range, which isn’t free-range at all – will, too.

Daylesford, the chicken and the egg

Organic farm Daylesford is a leader in the organic movement in the UK. Uniquely, it now owns the whole story of its chickens – hatching its own eggs, rearing and slaughtering the mature birds.

This is how we imagine every farm to operate, but we are sadly mistaken.

The story of its organic chicken starts with a state-of-the-art hatchery. Smith and his team have built up a parent flock of organic, free ranging birds to lay fertilised eggs.

They collect these every day and transport them to the hatchery. Here they sterilise them and they are rotated for 21 days in a toasty incubator set to 37.5C to imitate the process of a broody hen.

Daylesford chicken

Once hatched, the chicks are taken to cosy brooding barns. A few weeks later, when they are big enough, they spend their days in as idyllic a way as you would imagine any farm animal. They graze the green grass, have dust baths, forage for clover and insects, and seek shelter under trees.

At night they are locked up and protected from foxes and other predators in their houses. There is a maximum of 625 per house. As soon as day breaks the doors are opened for them to curiously explore once again.

How cheap chicken is really produced

In intensive systems there are commonly 18,000-50,000 chickens per house and that number is growing.

The chicks are typically owned and delivered ready-formed by a producer. This producer provides strict instructions on how they should be reared for maximum growth and collects them again for slaughter.

These include insisting they stay indoors, have a high amount of protein in their feed, and are kept in long hours of artificial light so they stay awake eating longer and grow fatter, quicker.

Intensively farmed chickens have more space in the oven than they do the shed.

So, the farmers in these systems have little control over how they are actually farming.

The chickens are often so tightly packed they have the equivalent of an A4 piece of paper to live on.

Free-range is a term that has been abused by producers with clever marketing teams. Don’t be fooled. These systems often look much more like the intensive system than the organic one, which is why those three questions are so important to ask.

We need to talk about slaughter

Slaughter isn’t the nicest part of any story to tell, but it’s an important part.

At Daylesford, they slaughter and butcher their chickens on their new onsite abattoir, which they built at a cost of about £1.8m.

The difference between the welfare at Daylesford’s operation, which has the maximum capacity of 10,000 chickens per week, compared with a huge processor that kills up to 10,000 an hour, is pretty significant.

Around 160 million UK chickens are slaughtered without being properly stunned each year. (CIWF)

The operators at Daylesford work as a team; they are multiskilled and most take care with each organic chicken.

“They have respect for the animals,” says Smith. “If they spot anything wrong with any of the animals that pass through, they instantly complain to me. They see huge importance in raising the issue.”

A recent report by the Sustainable Food Trust highlights how small, local abattoirs are “at a critical point and in danger of collapse”.

There are now only 63 left in England, down from 1,700 in the 1970s.

Slaughter isn’t the nicest part of any story to tell, but it’s important. The difference between the welfare at Daylesford’s abattoir, which has the maximum capacity of 10,000 chickens per week, compared with a huge processor that kills up to 10,000 an hour, is huge.

The report states:

“The main problem is the dominance of supermarkets, and mergers and acquisitions in the meat industry which allow large abattoirs to prosper at the expense of smaller ones.”

The 2 Sisters slaughterhouse in Wales is one of the largest in the UK and the main abattoir supplying Tesco; it’s open 24 hours a day. Economically, smaller abattoirs just can’t compete, but they are critical for local farming communities and animal welfare.

For animals, transportation to the abattoir can be the most stressful part of the process. This journey is now regularly hundreds of miles as opposed to just down the road.

When large numbers are the name of the game, there are also horror stories of chickens being grabbed three at a time. They are carelessly pushed into crates where their legs, wings or heads can get crushed.

Compassion in World Farming reports that around 160 million UK chickens are slaughtered without being properly stunned each year. This causes extreme pain, distress and suffering.

Eating less meat, but eating better meat, is the way forward. Using the whole of the animal, including the carcass to make a chicken stock or soup, makes your money go further.

Main image: Abel & Cole organic chicken