Free Range v. Organic Chickens: The Test

There can’t be many who aren’t aware of the horrors of battery farming at it’s worst. Thousands of birds crammed into vast sheds – often windowless with artificial lights on 24/7; their movements completely restricted; their bodies pumped full of growth hormones to speed up the production cycle. And goodness knows what they’re fed on! Sometimes, the birds grow so fast their legs can’t support their bodies; they spend their short lives sitting in their own filth. As you can imagine, these birds are highly stressed and regular doses of anti-biotic are needed just to keep them alive. Shudder!

So what are the alternatives?

Free range, in my mind, is predominantly about animal welfare. There are controls over how the number of birds per square foot and the animals are free to… well… range! They have access to open-air grass runs. Feed must contain at least 70% cereals. That said, they can be given chemically treated feeds and can be treated with drugs including, as far as I can tell, growth hormones.

There’s also the subset of free range corn-fed birds – their feed must include at least 50% maize, which gives the meat it’s characteristic yellow colour.

Organic, as I understand it, goes quite a bit further. It too governs how densely packed the birds are in their sheds and specifies access to open-air grass runs. But it also rules out growth hormones (antibiotics are permitted to treat sick birds but cannot be regularly and routinely given for any other purpose). The makeup of the chicken feed is also regulated. It contains cereals, some vegetable protein, a small amount of fish meal, and a vitamin/mineral supplement. In addition, the feed itself must be grown organically. In many cases, it’s often also free from genetically modified produce.

To my mind, even if one puts aside the animal welfare issue, it makes sense that animals allowed to grow at a natural rate, to develop their muscles by normal movement, to eat a healthy and natural diet and to live a relatively relaxed life interacting with their fellow birds will taste better than their cheap, mass-produced counterparts.

A few years ago, some newspapers made a great fanfare about research papers published by food scientists at Strathclyde University. There was rather a large leap from what the papers contained to what the journalists claimed – that the scientists had shown that organic confers no nutritional benefit over non-organic and that it doesn’t taste better either. All in all it was a gleeful nose-thumb to the merits of organic farming and the high prices of organic produce. In reality, the papers concluded no such thing, and what they did put forward was based on statistically insignificant samples.

In any case, I had never held the belief that there is a nutritional benefit to organic. My thinking is that organic is about curtailing the use of artificial chemicals in production, and therefore as much about the environmental benefit as the quality of the produce itself. And perhaps, there may prove to be long-term health benefits to ingesting less chemicals, though it’s not something I worry about.

I figured that, in terms of taste, both free range and organic provide a clear taste/texture improvement over battery-farmed.

My question was whether organic would taste any better than free range or about the same?

So I set out to find out.

Abel & Cole have recently launched a range of free range meat, alongside their organic. They kindly sent me two beautiful chickens – one free range and one organic.

The birds were the same size and my plan was to cook them side by side and make a direct comparison.

The first step was to score a big F and O into the skins to ensure no accidental mixups! As you can see, the organic bird has a yellower tone to the free range.

Then a liberal application of butter (à la Simon Hopkinson) and the birds went into the oven.

And came out beautifully roasted!

So what was the result?

Both birds did taste fabulous, but the organic one definitely had the edge. It’s skin, especially, had far more flavour. The meat too had more flavour, though both were moist, tasty and with similar great texture.

I also fried both chicken livers as little snack before the meal. Both were delicious! Really not much in it, but the organic one was just that bit firmer and meatier.

We made stock from both carcasses / giblets and the two batches were indistinguisable.

A round of applause to the organic bird! It won, by a small nose (or should that be parson’s nose?)

For those on a tighter budget, the free range bird is a great quality choice. When pushing the boat out, it’s worth paying more for the organic.

Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!
12 Comments to "Free Range v. Organic Chickens: The Test"

  1. Suelle

    I think there are more factors involved than just whether or not the bird is organic. I've had some pretty dire organic chickens from supermarkets, which wouldn't fare very well in a taste/texture test against the cheaper options available. Even within the organic option there are obviously going to be differences between the bottom and top ends of the market.

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  2. Kavey

    Yes, that's a very fair point. It's why, for this test, I wanted both birds to be from same source.

    But it's fair to say that in many cases a free-range bird from one place might out perform an organic from another, and vice versa!

    I can't really do any comprehensive test so thought this small test would still be fun!

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  3. S

    i think this was a brilliant test. i was at Whole Foods the other day and the butcher was trying to explain the difference between organic and certified organic- i was buying a chicken for making stock. i went for the organic vs certified organic as the price point leap was a tad bit too much. for a roast chicken i would have spent that kind of money, but not for a chicken i was using to make stock (and sadnwiches/salads with the meat). you make a very valid point- we need to eat healthy chickens- where they are given space to run and develop muscle tissue and fat, in the proper way. i was quite horrified to see a chicken breast the size of a ham you find at Christmas parties in America! never went back to that butcher again. i loved your post.

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  4. Tom Bechtel

    YUM!! I've never had an organic chicken but I only buy free range ones now since they don't inject them with all that salt, hormones etc. and they are not as mis-treated. Your chicks look terrific. I have a little rotisserie that I use to cook my whole chickens on. they come out nice and golden brown and its so easy! I will have to go find an organic one to try the comparison myself. I'm getting hungry now!

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  5. The Purple Foodie

    Very interesting observations. I wonder when the words organic chicken and free range chicken will mean something in India… We're getting there but it should be sooner rather than later.

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  6. Lizzie

    Is there no limit to Abel & Cole's generosity? I seem to rememeber Rick Stein (?) doing a similar experiment and the majority voted the battery chicken to be tastier…!

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  7. Kavey

    Lizzie, maybe I should have sourced a battery chicken from supermarket to include in the experiment! Dang, didn't even occur to me!
    A&C generous, though I take their offers up only when fits in with an idea I've had (like this one and the DIY graze boxes).

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  8. Evelyn

    Free-range has a number of serious welfare problems: The chickens keep fighting as no pecking order can be established in the large pens. Hens are very mean animals who love fighting and a lot of the losers will die miserably and slowly from constant bullying.

    The chickens tend to spook at anything and everything and pile onto each other, crushing the ones at the bottom.

    That is why battery farms have all those cages at great expense — to protect the hens from each other. (It would be far cheaper to just cram them into one place without partitions otherwise!)

    As the chickens in the barn get older, the barn also gets muckier, the eggs are laid everywhere (in the stinky muck) and it's hard to clean up, because it makes the animals spook (and die), which is why it's only done at clearing out time. The ammonia stench from the accumulated chicken droppings is also very bad for the hens and far worse than in cleanable battery system where the same level of pollution would invite a prosecution by DEFRA.

    Organic: Sadly so, often organic feed is very substandard in quality and costs more without any scientifically established benefits. If you're concerned about the quality of feed, organic is not a good choice. Besides that, if you look at the technology of plant fertilisation, you'll find that at the chemical level, it's all the same, with the difference that modern fertilisers are easier to use by the plants and do not contain random contaminants (diseases and unfavorable substances or unbalanced proportions), which is why you get much better yields with modern technology. Better yields means less land has to be cultivated, leaving more space for nature.

    As goes for meat taste — letting the animals roam around just makes the meat tough and burns more feed without better result.

    All in all, battery farming is the best choice in a factory farm setting, and only such firms can produce enough to feed us all.

    The new regulations will simply put European farmers out of business, and farms in other places without good animal protection laws will gladly take the business and their standards are way below the ones that our well-meaning but misguided animal rights friends decried as cruel. (as happened with fur farms etc, the business simply moved to unregulated pastures but of course didn't cease but it booming because it is now much cheaper to run!)

    Bottomline is: If you really care about the welfare of the animals you eat, the only way to do this is to make room in your back yard for your own chickens, rabbits and quails.

    A professional farmer simply cannot look after animals the way you can! This is the only way you can say you're eating clean, humanely treated meat that has been properly handled before, during and after slaughter, and the animal has been spared long transport times and unfamiliar surroundings. Despatching an animal is never a happy job, but when you farm yourself, you can learn how to calmly take the animal out of the cage and despatch it before it even knows what is happening — it takes but a few seconds as opposed to hours in a commercials setting that has to use an approves slaughterhouse hundreds of miles away. Meat quality is far more influenced by how the animal died than by what it ate — stress hormones that are produced when the animal is fearing for it's life are not only tasting horrible but are very bad for you.

    Take a look here: http://pan-am.uniserve.com/pg000031.htm — rabbits are easy to keep, quails can be kept almost anywhere, and chickens also are a great hobby to have. If you have kids, this is a great way for them to learn responsibility by looking after animals and to contribute meaningfully to the family income by being mini-farmers. Plus having a mini-zoo is good for the soul =)

    Have fun, and keep up your nice blog — I will try your chicken pate recipe with some rabbit livers (that's how I found you!).

    Reply
  9. Evelyn

    I think you have been sold a lot of animal 'rights' propaganda — think about it for a moment: only healthy chickens produce meat(or the farmer will go broke very quickly, sick, mistreated animals don't fatten up!), and millions of people eat battery chicken and their eggs without any health problems whatsoever. Please take a second look at your sources and perhaps talk to an actual chicken farmer if in doubt or visit a farm to see for yourself. It sounds terrible when these animal rights charities come up with horror stories, but almost all those organisations are pure PR outfits that pay their executives huge wages and fat pensions(we're talking CEO level incomes here), so, they have a vested interest in making things look bad enough in order to get people to donate, that is their business. Animals are merely a prop in their lucrative business — for example, PETA euthanises unwanted pets wholesale instead of bothering to get them adopted, whilst siphoning off millions of pounds in donations in the donations market that otherwise would have gone to actual shelters and charities like the PSDA.

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  10. Kavey

    Evelyn
    I wouldn't give PETA the time of day if you paid me, nor do I give any truck whatsoever to most sob-story animal rights groups.
    I'm afraid that's too easy an assumption to make on your part!
    No interest in raising my own animals, nor space and resources to do so, however our entire back garden is already turned over to producing our own fruit and vegetables.
    The idea that battery farming is the best way to get quality meat is laughable, can only assume you haven't tasted much of it – bland, flabby, tasteless crap!
    And it's muscle usage that makes for best tasting meat, not tough at all – I prefer an onglet (skirt) steak to fillet – and yet onglet is a hard-working muscle, fillet so soft and unworked that it has little taste to my palate.
    Whilst there might be an argument to be made against free range/ organic on the grounds of it not being feasible given population and the high demand for chicken, there is absolutely no way in heck that a sane argument can be made on the grounds of taste or welfare!!!

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