Know your chickens: what the standards really stand for

Red tractor, freedom food, RSPCA-assured? Who to trust for a better bird.

Over one billion chickens (1.1 billion; ) are reared for meat every year in the UK. Broiler chickens are bred to grow as big as possible, as fast as possible – four times faster than 50 years ago. 

A recently updated report by DEFRA on UK poultry slaughterhouses and hatcheries, analysed by animal rights group Open Cages, found 82.3 million chickens died before reaching kill weight last year, a mortality rate of nearly 7 per cent (the Red Tractor farm assurance scheme requires mortality rates to be 5 per cent of less). That’s a shocking number – but far from the only shocking statistic: Wicked Leeks recently reported on the link between intensive poultry farming and the widespread pollution of our waterways.

Alongside the far-reaching environmental consequences of intensive chicken farming, there’s the increasingly poor track records on welfare of many of the large-scale producers too. We’ve drilled down on the differences between the common terminology and certification that’s used in poultry farming and across the products you’re likely to find in shops and supermarkets – to help you navigate your choices with clarity and conviction.

The pecking order – from the bottom to the top

British / Fresh / Corn-Fed Chicken 

  • None of these terms, often used on labelling by supermarkets, gives any welfare standard assurances
  • 95 per cent of UK broiler (reared for meat) chickens are farmed in intensive poultry units (IPUs) where they’re reared to reach slaughter weight at just six weeks old. Their short lives are spent in overcrowded sheds with no natural light and no access to the outside.
  • These broiler chickens spend much of their lives lying down because their legs are not strong enough to carry their unnaturally heavy body weights.
  • 19 birds are allowed to live in less than one square metre (that’s about a size of A4 paper per bird).
  • The fast growing breeds that make up the factory farmed chickens rely on a diet of imported soya, which is grown using highly hazardous pesticides in Latin America (they’re banned in the UK) contributing to the land clearance and destruction of wildlife in vital ecosystems overseas. 
  • A Guardian report in 2022, found that across three major supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsburys and Asda) standard broiler chicken meat, was cheaper by weight, than frozen chips.

Red Tractor Certified Standards. Red Tractor maintains that every chicken can be traced back to the hatchery and is given 10% more space than the EU requirement. They’re working to phase in natural light. They have, however, been at the centre of numerous scandals, with repeated reports and enquiries (dating 2017 to 2024) uncovering distressingly low standards on British Red Tractor farms. For that reason, the symbol has come to mean relatively little to those seeking higher welfare standards.

British Red Tractor also produce the ‘Enhanced Welfare’ standard which aims to uphold the Better Chicken commitment. They state that ‘farms are inspected regularly and chickens are raised in spacious barns, have more room and enriched living conditions in which to grow, roam and play.’

Higher Welfare Indoor Chickens fare slightly better – 12-14 birds are allowed, per square metre. There’s also natural light available and straw bales to allow them to peck, perch and forage. The standard is seen by some as controversial, given that numerous undercover investigations by animal rights’ groups Animal Equality and the Animal Justice Project revealed horrific treatment by handlers and catchers and numerous breaches of the requisite standards. The Independent also reported on research from the RSPCA which found that intensively reared chicken is being sold as ‘higher welfare’ by some supermarkets.

The RSPCA Assured standard meets the same requirements as above, but uses a breed that grows a little more slowly than intensive breeds, for slightly better overall wellbeing. Earlier this year, a spate of undercover investigations by the Animal Justice Project led to many British farms being stripped of their RSPCA Assured standard, when footage showed a catalogue of brutal treatment by catchers and handlers, alongside a battery of standards and welfare breaches.

Standard Free Range birds are given access (for at least half of their lives) to an outdoor range during the day and are housed in sheds at night. In the EU, each chicken must have one square metre of outside space. They grow slower and live for an average of 56 days. They have opportunities for natural behaviour such as pecking, scratching, foraging and exercise outdoors, as well as fresh air and daylight, better leg and heart health, and a much higher quality of life. Last year, Farmers Weekly reported on ‘an investigation by the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) which revealed that housed birds and free-range birds were being mixed at separate, but linked, locations before being submitted for slaughter.’

Organic chickens have outdoor access for at least a third of their life, and they get at least four square metres of space outside. They grow at half the rate of intensive chickens and live for at least 70 days before slaughter. The maximum flock size for meat chickens on organic farms is 4800. Environmental considerations are also far more carefully managed and monitored. The key here is to know who’s rearing and caring for the flock. Though organic farms are tiny in comparison to the industrial-size intensive units, reports of poor welfare standards do still surface from time to time. There have also been scandals involving non-organic meat passed off as organic, due to both human processing errors and outright mendacity. The more you know about who rears, slaughters and processes your meat, the better.

Soil Association Organic is generally seen as the highest welfare standard and also covers a host of the most stringent environmental standards. SA certified farms must limit the size of the flock to a maximum of 1,000 birds. All organic standards are defined by EU/UK laws, but the Soil Association also has some higher standards where licensees are required to go further than those legally enshrined standards, which you can learn more about here.

And, if you’re keen to know what the five key differences between free range and organic eggs are, you can read the Soil Association’s guide, here.

Sources: The Soil Association; Compassion in World Farming; Better Chicken Commitment and The Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).


Leave a Reply

  1. The very first organic food I bought was chicken and eggs after I discovered just exactly how non-organic chickens were crowded, deprived of light and outdoor space and treated with growth hormones to bring them to slaughter weight in an unnaturally short space of time. Since then I have become increasingly aware of the antics of the food ‘industry’, which has dramatically changed how and where I buy food and what I buy. I sincerely believe in the power of the purse, but chiefly in the need for education about what we put in our mouths. People would make better choices if they knew what they were choosing between – and where the profits go.


In case you missed it

Receive the Digital Digest

Food, Farming, Fairness, every Friday.

Learn more

About us

Find out more about Wicked Leeks and our publisher, organic veg box company Riverford.

Learn more