Sunday, 23 September 2007

Freedom Food

Tomorrow marks the start of the RSPCA Freedom Food Farm Animal Week. It wasn't something I knew anything about, to be honest, until I saw the details and entered them in the UK Food Bloggers' Association Calendar. And then spotted this delicious-looking bird in Sainsbury's.

Deep yellow meat and a delicious taste to match
Dad cooked it simply - slow roasted with garlic and tarragon and served with roast potatoes, carrots and gravy made by reducing the juices. It certainly tasted as good as it looked - moist, succulent and full of the flavour that comes with corn-rearing. A million miles from the factory-farmed chicken that usually fills the shelves of my local supermarkets. The £5.61 price tag was a bit of a shock, though. For less than that, you can buy one the same size ready-roasted in Asda, dripping with horrible fat and barbecue sauce. But the real surprise came when I went online to check the prices of all Sainsbury's chickens:

Whole chicken type£/kg


"Taste the difference" free range3.99

Freedom Food3.25*

"Best of British"2.09


* Subsequently reduced to £2.60/kg

Given that the cheaper classifications are intensively farmed and crap-fed, the price premium for this barn-reared corn-fed chicken seemed very reasonable. What really caught my eye though were the prices of the free range (are they really free range in the true sense of the phrase?) offering and, shock horror, the organic birds. Call me a cynic, but it seems to me that you apply a celebrity-promoted phrase or the word "organic" to a food product and sell it for twice the price.

So, the question was - what exactly was the "Freedom Food" chicken that I had just eaten? The answer might surprise you. Freedom Food is not necessarily free range, nor organically reared and, as with my West Country Devonshire Red corn fed bird, you may not even know whether or not these labels apply. What it does guarantee is that the welfare of the animal concerned was assured independently by people you can trust - the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals. Freedom Food is a non-profit making charity set up by the RSPCA in 1994 to improve farm animal welfare. Completely independent from the food industry, Freedom Food claims to apply higher animal welfare standards than any other UK farm assurance scheme. To qualify under the scheme, all farm animals must be reared according to strict RSPCA standards covering each stage of the animal's life, including handling and transportation as well as rearing. The scheme includes annual inspection of all premises by RSPCA Inspectors and regular traceability checks to ensure that every link in the chain is fully certified.

Chickens doing what chickens do best
It seems to me that this is a very sensible way to market food from animals that have been raised ethically. For those with the time and skill to make their way through the maze of other classifications, so much the better. I'm not for a moment arguing against buying free range or organic products. But for those whose primary concern is animal welfare and who are buying free range or organic in the hope that this will offer some guarantees, the Freedom Food scheme may be just what you are really looking for.


Anonymous said...

Think you'd better take a look at the facts about Freedom Food

And then take a look at the facts about the RSPCA

Trig said...

I'm not going to remove your comment because I won't censor this blog unless people are openly libelous or grossly offensive.

But I'm not prepared to tolerate criticisms under the banner of anonymity.

If I write about conditions for women in male-dominated kitchens, I'll take anonymous comments from female chefs. If I write about food imports from Myanmar, I'll accept anonymous comments about working conditions in that country from its residents.

What I won't accept are anonymous criticisms of the RSPCA from people located in the UK. If you need to post anonymously then the conclusions to be drawn about you and the organisation you represent are self-evident.

Kiriel du Papillon said...

Well said.

Richard said...

The whole definition of 'free range' requires looking at. You hint at this in your blog, but I think the truth is, consumers don't understand what it means.
To many people 'free range' conjours pictures of happy hens running round a farmyard pecking away and living a 'natural' life.
However, 'free range' is defined by DEFRA as follows:
"Poultrymeat can only be marketed as ‘free-range’ meat where the birds from which the meat has come have had continuous daytime access to open-air runs during at least half their lifetime"
The key to this is the word "access" - if you feed, heat and water the chicken indoors, it is unlikely to want to go out very much. Much of the chicken's taste depends on the food it eats - if it's eating the same food as a basic chicken, it will taste quite similar. And of course, they can spend half their lifetime in the same conditions as your ordinary intensively reared broiler.

As a home cook, my concern lies more with the taste of the food than with the animal welfare here - and I've never detected a discernible diference in taste between a supermarket 'basic' and a supermarket 'free-range' bird. I have bought more expensive chickens - organic, corn-fed etc from UK supermarkets, but none came close to the black-leg chicken I bought in a supermarket in France (or those that I buy from my local butcher). I will look out for the Freedom Food ones though!

Sophie said...

As far as I understand how these things work, RSPCA freedom food is a good way for consumers to know that they are buying animals that have been raised to a measurable, basic animal welfare standard. I've called it a basic standard which I don't mean in a derogative way, just that is within the bounds of what is achievable by many producers without incurring too much extra cost.

But, I don't think it is true that buying (soil association) certified organic meat is an artificially hyped higher price for nothing extra; the animal welfare side of the soil association's certification standards are a fair bit stricter than those of RSPCA freedom food. Just to give a quick example, the RSPCA stipulates a maximum of 19 birds per square metre compared with the Soil Association's requirements for a maximum of 6 laying hens per square metre or 10 meat birds (which are kept to a younger age). Adhering to these higher animal welfare standards (not to mention all of the other aspects of organic certification) is more work and is bound to cost more money.

I personally prefer to eat meat a little less often but to pay extra for organic when I do eat meat. But this sort of thing is entirely a matter of personal beliefs and ethics and I think buying freedom food is a great place to start and so much better than not giving animal welfare any thought at all.

Anyway, that's my two penneth on the matter. Trig - I think it is great that you bought the subject up in the first place!


Trig said...

Sophie - Thank you so much for your input. I think we're very much on the same page when it comes to all the business of food-related animal welfare, and you've actually summed it all up far better than my amateur attempts!

dan said...


two other comments on this have already mentioned some of these issue but I am going to weigh in too.

Firstly, the Freedom Food chicken that you bought was not Free Range. It was intensively farmed indoors. Not as intensively reared as your economy bird but 19 birds per square metre is pretty intensive. Your nice picture of of birds eating outside (along with the nice label on the bird that shows the rolling countryside) bears no relation to how your chicken was reared.

Secondly, £5.61 for a bird that has to be raised, fed (on corn), medicated, slaughtered, processed, packed, delivered to a supermarket and sold, sounds cheap to me. If you are used to paying less than £2/Kg for chicken then inevitably it sounds expensive but in real terms it is dreadfully cheap.

Thirdly, it is cynical of you to claim that organic food is an excuse to mark up the product. In the case of chicken, organically reared birds are more expensive to rear. They have to be allowed to roam freely outside allowing them to eat bugs, grass, weeds etc. They take longer to mature before they are ready for slaughter. They are just more expensive to farm.

I try never to buy chicken from a supermarket. In fact I try never to buy any meat from a supermarket. I will always buy a good quality free range or Organic chicken. It will cost me up to £10 but that is a fair price to pay for a properly reared chicken. That tastes like chicken.

As a chef what matters most to you, I would suspect, is taste. Go and find yourself a top quality bird and compare that with your Sainsbury's chicken. Try making a stock from the carcasses and you'll know which gives you the better return on your investment. Then Blog it!

Lastly..... if you haven't read it already, I recommend you read Hugh FearnlyWearnly's lengthy discussion on poultry farming in his Meat Book. Out of interest, he visits the producers of your Devonshire Red chicken.

veronica said...

Really interesting discussion going on here, and timely too as I believe both Jamie Oliver and Hugh F-W are planning TV programmes looking at how the chicken we eat are reared and the ethics of the different systems.

Thought you might like to know there's a website for the Devonshire Red chicken you bought - This explains the three different systems (including the indoor Freedom Food system for your Corn Fed) in which this breed of chicken is reared ... and to a large degree it's the breed that differentiates it from many of the other chicken on supermarket shelves. This chicken isn't genetically programmed to just sit and eat, as more traditional meat breeds are. It's naturally inquisitive and active, which means it's more suited to the higher welfare rearing systems and will get out there and range rather than just staying where the food is. I always try to buy Devonshire Red when I'm buying chicken, as there's a really distinct texture as well as taste, which I think must be to do with the breed of bird as well as how it's reared.

On the Devonshire Red website the producer is totally upfront about how the Freedom Food corn fed bird is reared indoors. Seems to me that what they're providing here is choice within a higher welfare context. We can't all afford organic, but there are higher welfare options out there that won't break the bank.

Personally I think there's way too much consumer apathy about chicken. We all need to be paying more attention to labeling and making the effort to find out about exactly what we're eating. Buying into BOGOF deals cheapens the lives of these chicken and in my opinion is just plain wrong.

Trig said...

Richard, Sophie, Dan & Veronica - thank you all for your contributions. I've learnt a great deal from reading your stimulating comments.

I agree that we need to think carefully about food economics before we make decisions. There has to be a balance between being too middle-class in our attitudes and ignoring the needs of poorer people, and having no regard for the welfare of animals. Affordable meat does not justify battery farming any more than the fact that someone from China is prepared to risk their life collecting cockles for less than the minimum wage justifies cheap shellfish.

I apologise for the photo, which was just a stock picture and not intended to represent how I though the Freedom Food chicken was reared. But I still think that some individuals and companies exploit the free range and organic designations of food products to raise prices disproportionately.

Of course I well understand the difference between meat from a good butcher and most meat from supermarkets. In normal circumstances I never buy meat from my local supermarket. This chicken was bought precisely for the purpose of blogging about it in order to open up a debate. It certainly did that, all right.

Sophie said...

It's great to see lots of passionate comments about this topic!

Veronica - the programme Hugh F-W made about chicken production has already been aired (unless there's another one on the way). It was very good but I was amazed at how difficult it was for him to change the participants attitudes around to paying a bit more for better meat.

Zack said...

Stumbled here by accident but guess I'll toss in my two cents...

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