When you look at what’s happened to chicken farming over the last 30 years it’s easy to see why a roast chicken isn’t quite like it used to be.
Chickens have been genetically selected for faster and more efficient conversion of feed into meat. So successful has this been that the time taken to produce a chook weighing 2kg has been essentially halved, from more than 70 days to around 40.
But this emphasis on rapid growth has caused significant differences between meat chickens (the industry calls them 'broilers') and other breeds and strains (such as those used for egg production).
Broilers (no matter whether they’re free-range, organic or otherwise) have a lot more breast muscle, which puts mechanical stresses on legs and hip joints, and accelerated skeletal growth causes more frequent bone disorders.
Not surprisingly in view of this, broilers are much less active than laying hens, spending less time walking, scratching and flapping their wings. All this affects the quality of the meat — slower-growing birds that have a longer life span and also those given the time to reach a bigger ultimate size have more flavour.
Our test results are in line with much bigger trials overseas. Research in the US found no significant differences between the quality of the meat (breast and leg) from broilers and free-range birds.
- A European study, which looked at responses from 100 ordinary consumers, also found no difference between the characteristics of organic and broiler chicken breast meat. Yet you'll often see claims that free-range and organic meat tastes better. What's the story? There are several factors.
- The feed the chooks get can affect the flavour. But the free-range and organic birds from the big producers often don't get much from their outdoor scratching (the grass gets exhausted pretty fast). Most of their food is the same mixture of grains as is used for raising broilers.
- The age of the bird matters. Commercial free-range chickens aren't necessarily slaughtered later than broilers (35-55 days). And the lifespan of organic chooks is only a little longer - the standards specify that organic meat chickens must be grown to maturity over a period of 63-80 days. Unfortunately the longer the birds live the more likely they'll suffer from bone and joint abnormalities.
The breed of chicken can influence the quality and flavour of the meat. In the past many different breeds were raised for meat. Now all commercial meat birds — broilers, free-range and organic alike — are from much the same fast-maturing genetic stock.
The free-range, organic and broiler birds from big producers are now so alike any differentiation and competition is dead, to the detriment of consumers and, ultimately, the industry. As one of our experts said of the industry, "They need to take a close look at themselves!"
If flavour is of paramount importance to you, try to find a small producer who uses traditional breeds and lets them live longer. Failing that, the best you can do is buy the biggest chicken you can find the bigger it is, the longer it's lived and likely the better the flavour.
Hormones and antibiotics
The claim that chickens are fed growth hormones is a furphy — the practice has been banned since the 1960s. But factory chickens are routinely fed antibiotics for disease prevention — and it so happens that antibiotics can also make the birds grow faster. The industry claims (correctly) that there’s no antibiotic residue in the meat, but the real issue is that of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Chickens carry bacteria such as E coli, salmonella and enterococci. Natural selection ensures that these bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics when they’re used over time, and CHOICE testing in 2002 found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in more than 10% of chickens.
These bacteria inevitably spread to humans, contributing to the ongoing problem of reduced effectiveness of life-saving antibiotics.