United Kingdom

From free-range to organic and now 'room to roam', how 12 supermarket roasts compare 

Planning to have a roast this weekend? In which case, it is likely to be chicken. 

Over the past 20 years or so, the bird has overtaken beef to become Britain’s most popular meat, helped by its reputation for being both healthy and cheap.

You can pick up a whole chicken for as little as £2.40 at some supermarkets. Many worry that such cheap prices mean the bird has had an unhappy life.

But, according to the British Poultry Council, of the estimated one billion birds slaughtered each year in the UK, just 30 million, or 3 per cent, are free-range or higher welfare, with a further ten million (or 1 per cent) organic, a label that means birds tend to be treated much better — but not always.

Harry Wallop is pictured tucking into a chicken. We roasted 12 different chickens — all at 180c for one hour and 15 minutes or so (depending on the weight), with nothing more than a splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt

However, this week Tesco launched a new category of chicken: ‘Room to Roam’ birds. 

Aimed at customers who would like a higher-welfare chicken, but can’t afford free-range, it promises its birds — raised inside barns — enjoy daylight and less cramped conditions than a typical factory chicken.

The measure used by poultry farmers is called ‘stocking density’ and is based on how many birds can you fit into a square metre: roughly the same space as the floor of a telephone box.

Under basic factory farming rules you are allowed to cram in up to 39kg of meat per square metre, which works out at just a bit less than 18 adult birds in this small area. The Room to Roam rules limit that to 30kg, or about 14 birds.

Another key welfare measure is when a bird is killed. Most modern chickens are now slaughtered after just 35 days, or sometimes as little as 32. 

Over the past 20 years or so, the bird has overtaken beef to become Britain’s most popular meat, helped by its reputation for being both healthy and cheap. You can pick up a whole chicken for as little as £2.40 at some supermarkets

These fast-growing birds, a study by the RSPCA found, were up to three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from moderate to severe lameness and require culling because their legs were not mature enough to fully support their body weight. The new Room To Roam birds are not killed until they are 56 days old.

But how does this higher-welfare label compare to the plethora of other labels and brands out there: Red Tractor, RSPCA Assured, free range, corn-fed, organic, Label Rouge, Label Anglais? And, crucially, is a happier bird a tastier one?

To find out we roasted 12 different chickens — all at 180c for one hour and 15 minutes or so (depending on the weight), with nothing more than a splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.

The posh one

Daylesford Organic, £15.90 at £9.99 per kg

Which shop? Daylesford Organic or Ocado.

Assurance scheme: Soil Association.

Days before slaughter: 70.

Space: 1 per sq m inside the shed; 1 per 10sq m outside.

Daylesford is the organic farm set up by Carole, Lady Bamford in Gloucestershire, which now has swanky farm shops in London’s Marylebone and Pimlico. It uses the Blue Legbar breed of chicken for poultry meat.

The chicken had plenty of meat and it had an intense poultry taste, almost gamey in flavour. The texture was a little tough, however.

Rating:

Daylesford Organic, £15.90 at £9.99 per kg

The Rolls Royce of chickens 

Label Rouge St Sever, £19.10 at £14 per kg

Which shop? Selfridges.

Assurance scheme: European IGP.

Days before slaughter: 81.

Space: 11 per sq m when inside at night, 2 per sq m when outside.

Label Rouge St Sever, £19.10 at £14 per kg

This was the priciest bird, with more labels on it than a Formula One racing driver.

But don’t be misled by the European IGP, or protected geographical indication label. This just means it has to come from the Landes region in the South West of France. 

The Red Label, however, is a French scheme that does guarantee it is very free range.

The raw bird, considering it costs £19.10, looks pretty scrawny. And cooked, the meat is quite dry. 

But the flavour is impressive, with the brown meat almost like turkey. Is this really worth seven times more than the cheapest? I’m not convinced.

Rating:

A bit watery

Finest Free Range Corn Fed, £7.58 at £4.65 per kg

Finest Free Range Corn Fed, £7.58 at £4.65 per kg

Which shop? Tesco.

Assurance scheme: Red Tractor Free Range.

Days before slaughter: 56.

Space: 12 to 13 per sq m inside the barn, 1 per sq m outside.

Free range can confuse some shoppers. It guarantees that the birds have access to outside space — but only for half their lives. 

Inside the barns they get more space than factory chickens — but not dramatically more space.

This bird is moist to the point of being watery. The taste is really quite bland, too. Not impressive.

Rating:

The new higher welfare bird

Room to Roam, £4.68 for bird, £3.33 per kg

Room to Roam, £4.68 for bird, £3.33 per kg

Which shop? Tesco.

Assurance schemes: Red Tractor Enhanced Welfare, RSPCA assured.

Days before slaughter: 56.

Space: 14 per sq m.

This is Tesco’s new bird, which uses RSPCA Assured — as well as a new Red Tractor scheme, Red Tractor Enhanced Welfare — as its guidance.

The birds get to live as long as a typical free range bird. 

Inside the barns, they get windows and bales of straw or perches to encourage natural behaviour such as pecking and scratching.

It tastes fine, with slightly anaemic fat. But it has a good texture.

Rating:

Fowl play!

Asda Farm Stores Whole Chicken, £2.81 at £1.87 per kg

Which shop? Asda.

Assurance scheme: No.

Days before slaughter: Between 32 and 38 days.

Space: 17 birds per sq m.

This chicken is not part of any assurance scheme. Asda insists, however, that though the Asda Farm Stores label is not part of the Red Tractor scheme, it follows Red Tractor guidelines.

It’s a lovely plump bird coming out of the oven. But it tastes bad, almost muddy. And the texture is terrible — both wet and like sawdust. Not a good chicken.

Rating:

Asda Farm Stores Whole Chicken, £2.81 at £1.87 per kg

Tastes like putty

Willow Farm Whole Chicken, £2.43 for bird, £1.87per kg

Which shop? Tesco.

Assurance scheme: Red Tractor.

Days before slaughter: 35.

Space: 17 per sq m.

Willow Farm is not a real farm. It’s an invention of Tesco and one that has upset the National Farmers’ Union who have blasted it a ‘fake farm label’. 

Tesco insists people should see it more as a quality assurance label. Hmm.

The cooked meat is bland and lacking in flavour and its texture is like putty.

Rating:

Willow Farm Whole Chicken, £2.43 for bird, £1.87per kg

Cheaper than tinned dog food 

Ashfield Farm, £2.49 for bird at £1.84 per kg

Ashfield Farm, £2.49 for bird at £1.84 per kg

Which shop? Aldi.

Assurance scheme: Red Tractor.

Days before slaughter: 35.

Space: 17 birds per sq m.

This, the cheapest bird, is another ‘fake farm’ label. 

Aldi says, however, that its animal welfare policy requires suppliers to ensure all chickens are provided with access to natural light — currently only a recommendation of the Red Tractor scheme.

The texture of this chicken is far firmer than some of the other cheap birds and it comes out of the oven a nice colour. 

But the meat lacks any deep flavour.

Rating:

A fancy chicken for fancy people 

No.1 Waitrose Free Range Corn Fed Chicken, £11.31 at £7.05 per kg

No.1 Waitrose Free Range Corn Fed Chicken, £11.31 at £7.05 per kg

Which shop? Waitrose.

Assurance scheme: Red Tractor Free Range.

Days before slaughter: 56.

Space: 12 to 13 per sq m inside the barn, 1 per sq m outside.

These birds, Waitrose claims, ‘are free to roam in grassy paddocks during the day’.

The cooked chicken is really tasty. It emerges from the oven looking lovely and golden with gorgeous crispy skin and savoury, lip-smacking brown meat.

Rating:

Like chicken flavoured crisps 

Birchwood British Large Chicken, £2.15 at £1.87 per kg

Which shop? Lidl.

Assurance scheme: Red Tractor, British Indoor.

Days before slaughter: 35.

Space: 17 birds per sq m.

Birchwood British Large Chicken, £2.15 at £1.87 per kg

Lidl last year introduced a series of labels on its chicken to be more transparent about the conditions different chickens live under, such as whether they were ‘British Indoor’ or ‘British Indoor+’, with clear explanations on its website what these categories mean. 

Its Birchwood basic chicken range, for instance, is British Indoor, and the label says: ‘Birds live in safe comfortable housing, with natural daylight, bales, perches and pecking objects.’

Some critics have pointed out that the graphic of a couple of birds inside a homely looking shed do not reflect the fact flocks of 3,000 birds can be cooped up in a single barn.

The bird looks grey going into the oven and not much more appetising coming out. The anaemic meat tastes of chicken-flavoured crisps, not chicken. Not what you want for your Sunday roast.

Rating:

A proper chicken 

Whole Foods Organic British & Free range, £16.10 at £8.45

Whole Foods Organic British & Free range, £16.10 at £8.45

Which shop? Whole Foods.

Assurance scheme: OF&G Organic.

Days before slaughter: 81.

Space: Ten birds per sq m when indoors and they are given access to outdoors for two-thirds of their life.

This is an organic chicken from Capestone Farm in Pembroke-shire. Raw, it is really plump and it manages to keep most of that flesh when cooked — some poor quality birds shrink badly. 

The deep flavour has a buttery quality.

‘A proper chicken’, judges my greedy 17-year-old, who has wandered into the kitchen to check on all the birds.

Rating:

Specially Selected Norfolk Free Range Corn Fed, £7.39 for bird, £3.85 per kg

A bit chewy 

Specially Selected Norfolk Free Range Corn Fed, £7.39 for bird, £3.85 per kg

Which shop? Aldi.

Assurance scheme: Red Tractor, RSPCA assured.

Days before slaughter: 56 days.

Space: 13 birds per sq m when in their barn. They have access to the outdoors for at least half their lifetime.

The RSPCA scheme guarantees further welfare standards above Red Tractor Free Range, particularly when it comes to transportation and slaughter.

This is a bit of a tough old bird, with very dense meat. The texture lets it down, which is a shame as this is a good-flavoured bird.

Rating:

The best of the flock

Label Anglais Special Reserve, £10.24 at £5.99 per kg

Which shop? Whole Foods.

Assurance scheme: None.

Days before slaughter: 72.

Space: 9 per sq m inside, 3 per sq m outside.

This is proof that you don’t need a welfare label — nor pay an outrageous sum — to get a cracking chicken. 

Championed by both Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal, Label Anglais birds are the Hubbard 778 breed grown in Wiltshire. Free range, but not organic. 

The cooked chicken has a fabulous texture — it’s not tough, but it has heft. Nice crispy skin and excellent flavour. This is a great chicken.

Rating:

Label Anglais Special Reserve, £10.24 at £5.99 per kg

Conclusion

Many supermarket labels are a sleight of hand, persuading you to hand over extra money for something nicely packaged, but no higher quality. 

With chickens, however, it really is worth paying a bit more. All of the basic factory-farmed birds (Red Tractor or no Red Tractor) were pretty poor.

But — equally— there’s no need to pay crazy money for organic. They don’t necessarily have any better quality of life.

The tastiest chickens tended to be old-fashioned free range, given access to daylight and a chance to live a longer life.

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