In the UK, if you’re cooking a chicken recipe, it is becoming increasingly fashionable to buy free-range chicken. While this is a positive turn of events free-range is not a modern phenomenon – free-range farming was the norm until the early 20th century, when an increasing demand for cheap meat for a growing world population led to the evolution of battery hens.
While buying free-range is ethical, it is not possible for everyone. This is because free-range products are pricier. For example, a whole chicken from a leading British supermarket costs £3 per kg; its free-range option will set you back nearly £5 per kg. If you still love your recipes for chicken one option is to become an ethical omnivore, where you only eat free-range, but this often means eating less meat.
Free-range chickens are allowed to roam freely for food, outside, and while it is much easier now to source birds that have been raised this way the vast majority (90%) of chickens in the UK are still intensively reared. The law insists that chickens reared for food must be allowed to roam outside for a minimum of eight hours a day, but even RSPCA Freedom Food is not strictly free-range and it is hard for shoppers to understand this as food labeling can be perplexing.
However, awareness is on the rise, thanks to Compassion in World Farming’s Chicken Out! campaign that continues to be endorsed by chef and promoter of the ‘Good Life’ Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Large companies such as MacDonald’s now use free-range eggs, though the chickens on its menus are still raised inside barns.
The only way to make free-range husbandry the standard is for the public to continually apply pressure to politicians and supermarket chains to only sell chickens and eggs from morally-sound sources, but in a world of rising food prices it is debatable how long and rocky the road to global free-range farming will be.