Free to roam and happy go clucky

SIMON DAY
Last updated 06:10 11/08/2014
Free range chickens
DAVID WHITE/Fairfax NZ

FARM GATE TO PLATE: In 10 weeks this chick will be ready for the dinner table.

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In the past 12 months New Zealanders ate nearly 100 million chickens.

Poultry is New Zealand's most popular meat and over the past 20 years consumption has increased from 14kg per person per year to more than 30kg.

And for the first time free range has claimed more than 10 per cent of the market. Five years ago it would have been less than 1 per cent.

Growing consumer concern about the provenance of their protein has driven many producers to free range farming; reducing flocks and retrofitting barns to give the chickens access to the outdoors.

And a small Hawke's Bay chicken farm, one of only three certified organic broiler operations in the country, has taken complete control of the whole production cycle to try to ensure the highest ethical and environmental standards.

But animal rights groups argue that even the most humane commercial conditions fail basic welfare standards. And without consistent, industry-wide certification of both organic and free range standards, consumers and business cannot be sure what's written on the label is actually what's in the bag.

Bostock's organic free range chicken is New Zealand's newest and only self-sufficient commercial chicken farm. The stony soils of Hawke's Bay's famous wine-growing Gimblett Gravels are also prime for raising organic chickens because the free draining former river bed means the ground doesn't turn to bog during heavy rain, preventing foot infections.

After working in the lamb and beef industry, Ben Bostock, 28, could see how removed farmers had become from their market, effectively losing control of their product at the farm gate. Seeing a growing market for meat produced with care and clear origins, Bostock has put a certified organic chicken farm in front of his father's apple orchard.

Bostock's chickens live in the dirt, scratching in pine shavings, sheltered by portable barns moved every 10 weeks to give the birds fresh ground and prevent disease. Each of 10 barns - 120 square metres and solar-powered sheds imported from France - house 1500 chickens, the maximum allowed by organic certification standards. They have 4500sqm of outdoor area in which to roam and forage for food in the grass.

Each shed carries a flock at a different stage of its life: from brand new chicks who arrived as yellow cotton buds on an Air New Zealand flight, to mature, 10-week-old chickens ready for market.

"After seeing the factory-like production and welfare for free range chickens, I realised if I was going to do it, it had to be under the organic welfare standard to match with my morals," said Bostock.

The chicken feed is homegrown: organic corn and barley from his father's fields, mixed with apple pumice (the dried leftovers after the fruit has been juiced for organic drinks), soy meal, fish meal and blood meal. The chicken guts and feathers are recycled as fertiliser on to the corn fields.

Independently audited to international standards by Asure Quality, organic certification requires: Bostock's is a chemical-free farm; the chickens are hormone and antibiotic free; and the feed organically grown. Growth stimulants are banned.

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Organic certification relies on good farming practices, exercise, low density, high quality feed and clean housing to prevent disease.

"The organic standard is important because it is a credible international standard which installs integrity in the product, not only against chemicals in the product, but also environmental and welfare issues," said Bostock.

There is no legislative or official industry definition of "organic" or "free range" so third party certification is essential for consumer confidence in these labels and to prevent their exploitation as merely a marketing tool, food scientists say.

"In terms of welfare of the animals, some of the brands that are using free range are really looking after their animals at the highest level possible, while others are meeting very minimal standards and probably not looking after the animals in the way a lot of consumers expect them to be doing given they are selling the product as free range. I am not sure that is widely understood by consumers and that is of some concern," said Dr Miranda Mirosa, food scientist at the University of Otago.

Last week, egg farmer John Garnett, who sold 2.47 million caged eggs labelled as "free range", barely escaped a prison sentence for his "serious and sustained deception" of consumers. In his defence he argued the practice was widespread.

"These are the sorts of things that are hugely damaging for the authentic farmers in the industry," said Mirosa.

All Tegel products labelled free range are certified with the SPCA's Blue Tick, as are Inghams Waitoa free range brand. The SPCA also uses Asure Quality to audit the farms, which are subject to random inspections.

The location of the Tegel free range farm and the name of the farmer cannot be revealed because the company fears vegan activists will break into the property. The site was converted to free range last year. The two-barn former fully housed farm was retrofitted to meet the SPCA's Blue Tick requirements with the financial support of Tegel.

The farmer, who likes to be called Chicken Al, is an independent grower contracted by Tegel to raise the birds. Tegel supplies the chicks and the feed.

Tegel sells 47 million birds a year, the majority raised indoors. But, in response to growing demand, Tegel is converting many of its smaller farms to free range. It paid for part of Chicken Al's free range fitout, and now pays better margins per square metre of farmed land.

"It is more than [an investment] for me, ethically it just felt right. It's the way the future is moving, we want to move away from factory farming," said Chicken Al who had barn-raised chickens since 2005.

Chicken Al bends down and squishes chicken manure between his fingers. He can tell the health of the birds from the colour and texture of their droppings. He describes his operation as a "mom and pop" farm. It's less romantic and a lot more high tech than that description.

The 1300sqm sheds are home to 19,500 birds each, the SPCA limit. Inside the barn the constant clucks sound like heavy rain on the roof. The sides have been opened to allow the birds access to a sloping grass area one-and-a-half times the size of the sheds, another Blue Tick obligation. Before the switch the barns housed up to 24,000 chickens, with no outdoor access.

A computer system housed in a small room outside the barn monitors the shed's environment, and controls the temperature, ventilation, feed and water.

The farmer's job is to ensure the animals are healthy and bring them to the exact weight for slaughter. Their size is controlled by their age and their feed.

"There are two things that we do here, we have a welfare system and a production system," said Chicken Al.

Tegel birds are on average killed at 38 days dependent on the size needed. The weight of the chickens is measured by the weigh stations on the floor of the barn, which average the weight of 800 birds who rest on the scales each day.

Under SPCA standards no more than six birds can be caught at a time, swooped up by the legs, three in each hand. They are killed at a processing plant in West Auckland and packaged under Tegel's Rangitikei free range brand and partner brands. Rangitikei chickens sell for around $15 for a 1.5kg bird at New World.

The organic standard requires chickens must not be killed before 52 days of age. Bostock's chickens are slaughtered between eight and 10 weeks.

To reduce the animal's stress, the chickens are caught at night, one at a time, a luxury of the smaller operation. Their weight is assessed on sight, the ideal size 14 final product should feel like a rugby ball in your hands.

To control the full process Bostock imported abattoir equipment from the US and built a tiny slaughterhouse in Hastings, 20 minutes from the farm. Five staff kill, butcher, bag and brand 300 birds per day, for sale in upmarket suppliers like Farro Fresh, and Auckland's Remuera New World, where the birds fetch $22 to $26.

Despite the care and consideration invested in the chickens and the farming process, neither the organic nor the free range systems are perfect.

Bostock's uses the Cobb 500 breed of chicken, the Tegel farm uses the Ross 308 breed, the only two meat birds available in New Zealand. The use of these breeds is one of the strongest criticisms animal welfare group, Safe, has of the poultry industry.

Modern production of chicken meat is one of the most efficient methods of producing animal protein. The white feathered birds with red comb and wattles have been selectively bred to be some of the world's most efficient broilers. They convert low cost feed into high growth. They put on weight fast. But their ability to rapidly convert protein also causes major health problems.

A Ministry of Primary Industries study published in 2013 on the leg health of Ross broiler birds found that around 30 per cent of birds had defects which affected their ability to walk. Some were so badly affected they couldn't walk. The study linked many of these problems to the rapid growth rates of the birds.

Broiler chickens rescued by Safe often die from health problems at around one-year-old.

"They are not what nature intended. They die about one-year-old because their bodies cannot physically cope with how big they get. A chicken that hadn't been selectively bred the way they had could live for about 15 years," said Mandy Carter, spokeswoman for Safe.

Across the industry around 3 per cent of chickens die before slaughter, many in the first weeks of their life, vividly illustrated when Chicken Al parts the white sea of birds to reveal a crushed carcass. "They are like puppies, they gorge themselves and then they have a heart attack."

The two breeds are the only meat-producing chickens allowed under New Zealand's tight biosecurity laws.

"Because they use those breeds it is likely that those animals suffered," said Carter.

The New Zealand chicken meat industry is controlled by four main players. The largest is Tegel, owned by Singapore private equity firm, then Inghams, owned by Australian investors, Brinks, 50 per cent owned by Van der Brink family and 50 per cent VDB investment group, and Turks, a smaller family-owned producer in Taranaki.

Organic production makes up just a tiny portion, less than 1 per cent, of production.

Consumer research suggests that while a lot of people would prefer to be eating ethically and sustainably raised chicken, price still dictates purchasing decisions to many New Zealand families.

"There is a gap. A lot more people would like to be buying organic and free range. It is still considered a luxury for a lot of people," said Mirosa.

This means that more than 90 million chickens are still grown in intensive conditions with no access to outside in the most cost-effective way possible but consumer demand will continue to force the industry to modify its practices.

"Consumers are increasingly engaged with food and increasingly discerning when they shop for food.

"There is an increasing awareness of health which people are associating with organics. There is an increasing awareness of environmental concerns, there is increasing concerns with animal welfare," said Mirosa.

And six months into farming Bostock has found people are willing to pay more for organic. And with plans for growth he hopes the organic chicken will become increasingly more accessible.

"Even though organic is a lot more expensive, a growing number of people understand the effort and benefits you get from rearing chickens humanely in a natural environment.

"You get what you pay for," Bostock said.

- Sunday Star Times

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