Do free range poultry systems offer better quality?

CA Weeks

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference Contribution (Conference Proceeding)


    The majority of EU consumers rate animal welfare as an important issue (8/10) and perceive higher welfare products to be healthier (51%), better quality (48%) and to taste better (34%) (Special Eurobarometer 270, 2007). There is a paucity of scientific evidence to back claims for improved healthiness, although some studies have shown relatively higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids in organic chicken meat (Castellini et al, 2002; Jahan and Paterson, 2007). Only a few studies support the claim of superior taste (Castellini et al, 2002), and scientific taste tests often fail to distinguish differences (Fanatico et al, 2007; Jahan et al, 2005), or find improved palatability of meat from conventional systems (Brown et al, 2008). Problems for scientific comparison of the relative quality of chicken meat from different systems include differences in genotype and age at slaughter, which, along with physical activity, diet and pasture intake are key factors in determining meat quality (Castellini et al, 2008). Similarly, among quality attributes of eggs that are independent of system are diet, genotype, bird age, management (of factors such as stocking density, litter quality, light, ventilation, temperature, beak-trimming) plus egg handling post-lay (Blokhuis et al, 2007; Rossi, 2007). There is a surprising paucity of evidence relating to the health and welfare of broiler chickens given access to range although mortality may be reduced (Skomorucha et al, 2008). Conventional genotypes may not range far (Weeks et al, 1994) and the use of slower-growing genotypes and less dense diets in organic and free-range systems confers metabolic and leg health benefits that, although characteristic of, are independent of system. The disadvantages of exposing very young birds to climatic extremes and the risk of predation possibly outweigh the theoretical benefits of enabling full foraging opportunities and extra exercise. Increased prevalence of foot pad dermatitis may be found in broilers with access to range (Pagazaurtundua and Warriss, 2006), which could be associated with litter type and quality. Although in theory free-range systems offer hens the greatest possibility to express ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ behaviours, the reality is that in large commercial flocks the majority choose not to go outdoors (e.g. Whay et al, 2007 reported a median of only 30% ranging). Abnormal behaviours such as feather-pecking and cannibalism are common in free-range layer flocks, although reduced in flocks where a higher proportion of hens range (e.g. Nicol et al, 2003). Behavioural and health problems, together with some losses to predators, can lead to higher levels of bird mortality in free-range than other systems with concomitant fear and reduced welfare. Thus, in many instances the quality benefits (taste, healthiness, good animal welfare) that consumers expect to be related to premium poultry products are not being met. Among several possible solutions, a way forward could be to develop and promote higher welfare semi-range (veranda/winter garden) and enriched indoor systems that expose birds to fresh air and natural daylight and provide choices of microenvironments. The use of appropriate genotypes, diets, husbandry and management to improve bird welfare and the taste of chicken meat and eggs could provide the consumer with an authentic quality package that would be commercially viable. Consumers could need to modify their perceptions and therefore would require validated information. References Blokhuis, H.J., Fiks Van Niekerk, T., Bessei, W., Elson, A., Guémené, D., Kjaer, J.B., Maria Levrino, G.A., Nicol, C.J., Tauson, R., Weeks, C.A. and Van De Weerd, H.A. (2007) The LayWel project: welfare implications of changes in production systems for laying hens. World’s Poultry Science Journal, 63 (1), 296-307 Brown, S.N., Nute, G.R., Baker, A., Hughes, S.I. and Warriss, P.D. (2008) Aspects of meat and eating quality of broiler chickens reared under standard, maize-fed, free-range or organic systems. British Poultry Science 49: 118-124 Castellini, C., Mugnai, C. and Dal Bosco, A. (2002) Effect of organic production system on broiler carcass and meat quality. Meat Science 60:219-225 Castellini, C., Berri, C., Le Bihan-Duval, E. and Martino, G. (2008) Qualitative attributes and consumer perception of organic and free-range poultry meat. World’s Poultry Science Journal 64: 500-512 Fanatico, A.C., Pillai, P.B., Emmert, J.L., Gbur, E.E., Meullenet, J.F. and Owens, C.M. (2007) Sensory attributes of slow- and fast-growing chicken genotypes raised indoors or with outdoor access Poultry Science 86: 2441-2449 Jahan, K., Paterson, A. and Piggott, J.R. (2005) Sensory quality in retailed organic, free range and corn-fed chicken breast. Food Research International 38: 495-503 Jahan, K. and Paterson, A. (2007) Lipid composition of retailed organic, free range and corn-fed chicken breasts International Journal of Food Science and Technology 42: 251-262 Nicol, C.J., C. Pötzsch, K. Lewis and L.E. Green (2003). Matched concurrent case-control study of risk factors for feather pecking in hens on free-range commercial farms in the UK. British Poultry Science 44: 515–523 Pagazaurtundua, A. and Warriss, P.D. (2006) Levels of foot pad dermatitis in broiler chickens reared in 5 different systems. British Poultry Science 47: 529-532 Rossi, M. (2007) Influence of the laying hen housing systems on table egg characteristics. XVIII European Symposium on the quality of Poultry Meat and XII European Symposium on the quality of Eggs and Egg Product, Prague, September 2-5 Skomorucha, I., Muchacka, R., Sosnowka-Czajka, E. and Herbut, E. (2008) Effects of rearing with or without outdoor access and stocking density on broiler chicken productivity. Annuls of Animal Science 8: 387-393 Special Eurobarometer 270 (2007) (accessed 10/02/09) Weeks, C.A., Nicol, C.J., Sherwin, C.M. and Kestin, S.C. (1994) Comparison of the behaviour of broiler chickens in indoor and free-range environments. Animal Welfare 3, 179-192. Whay, H.R., Main, D.C.J., Green, L.E., Heaven, G., Howell, H., Morgan, M., Pearson, A. and Webster, A.J.F. (2007). Assessment of the behaviour and welfare of laying hens on free-range units. Veterinary Record 161: 119-128
    Translated title of the contributionDo free range poultry systems offer better quality?
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationKnowing Animals, Florence, Italy
    Publication statusPublished - 2009

    Bibliographical note

    Conference Organiser: Welfare Quality


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