For the last 50 years most poultry production, whether it is for meat or eggs, has not been land based, because the intensification on land has led to disease. Broiler production went indoors and became a single-age unit to avoid disease. Egg production moved from outside to inside and moved above ground as well – firstly to deep litter and then to cage systems.
As demand for chicken meat and eggs grew producers intensified production and introduced grain-based feed, hormones (growth hormones are not used in poultry production in Australia), antibiotics, and other drugs in an attempt to maximize meat and egg output. These intensified systems consume large amounts of intensively farmed cereals and protein, and produce large amounts of manure (chemically-contaminated pollution), and violate animal rights.
How can you be sure about the welfare of the bird that produced the meat or egg on your plate? You can be pretty confident that if it carries an organic certification label it indicates a different world for the birds compared to the nightmare conditions present in the conventional levels of intensive poultry production.
In recent years several different methods of poultry production have evolved for raising small flocks of meat birds. The following are some of the more common methods.
Non-organic commercial broilers
Day old chicks are reared on the floor of a large shed or barn – they are sometimes called barn-raised. The chicks are fed a refined ration, which contains antibiotics, and may contain traces of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers and be genetically modified. Controlled environments including lighting schedules are used to obtain maximum growth of meat. Birds usually grow very fast and are slaughtered at approximately 40 days.
Roasters are commercially raised birds larger than broilers that are slaughtered around 50-70 days old.
In the free range system birds are required to have access to the outdoors most of the year, with significantly large outside runs with a set floor space per bird. The feed is usually not allowed to contain antibiotics, although this is not always the case. Meat produced in this way is called free range. Different countries have slightly different requirements for the meat or eggs to be called ‘free range’.
This system is not often used in Australia. Pastured poultry production uses a movable enclosure with shelter from the elements. The structure is moved once or twice daily to a new piece of grass. Birds may get up to 20 percent of their daily diet from the forage and insects in the new ground. As opposed to the free range system, these birds have access to new grass daily.
Corn fed chickens are raised conventionally but receive a high level of corn in their diet. The corn is neither organic nor free of GMOs.
The guidelines for raising organic chickens are more stringent than free range and vary slightly from country to country, but for international certification they must comply with international standards. From birth the chickens must be raised by these certification methods. Their feed must be 95 percent organic and can not contain antibiotics or vitamins and minerals in supplement form. The chickens are allocated a larger area of space to range per bird than other methods. Debeaking is not carried out.
Dangers from antibiotic fed poultry
Most consumers are unaware of the dangers of eating poultry. There is mounting evidence suggesting the poultry industry’s use of antibiotics induces antibiotic resistance among the food-borne bacteria that affect human health. One such antibiotic resistant strain is Campylobacter, a pathogen common to chicken products.
Essential fatty acids imbalance in chicken meat and eggs
Modern agriculture’s emphasis on increased production has led to the development of chicken feed that produces an imbalance of omega 6:omega 3. The ratio needs to be less than 4:1. Chickens that eat vegetable matter high in omega 3 fatty acids, along with insects and fresh green grass, supplemented with fresh fruit and small amounts of corn produce eggs that have a ratio of 1.5:1, whereas grain-fed chicken eggs have a ratio of 20:1. A Spanish study also found that when chickens were fed a diet that included grass, the vitamin E content of their eggs increased significantly. In another study eggs from grass fed chickens were found to be higher in Beta-carotene.