The average Aussie consumes 48 kilograms of chicken meat every year.
By 2022, that’s forecast to rise to 52 kilograms.
When it comes to buying chickens, there’s plenty of choice and potential for confusion, too.
Here’s what chicken and nutrition experts have to say about what a healthy and “happy” chook is, and whether eating one makes a difference to your health.
There are egg-laying chickens and meat chickens
Chickens raised for meat production are also called broiler chickens – they’re genetically different to layer hens used to produce eggs.
“Meat chickens grown indoors will spend their entire lives inside the shed, while meat chickens that are provided with outdoor access (free range) are generally contained within the shed for the first three weeks until they are reasonably feathered and then given access to the outdoors during daylight hours,” the RSPCA says.
Defining a happy chook
When it comes to the welfare of all animals, the RSPCA takes into account their physical, mental and emotional condition.
In Australia, more than 60 per cent of the meat chicken industry is “RSPCA Approved”. For a farm to be approved, an assessor visits to ensure it meets the requirements, and continues to monitor the site thereafter.
“We also consider whether they can perform natural behaviours. For meat chickens that includes perching, scratching at the ground, pecking, foraging and dust bathing,” says Kate Hartcher, RSPCA scientific officer of farm animals.
Good quality litter, ventilation, temperature and enough lighting and space are vital for a chicken’s good health, Dr Hartcher says.
“In addition to the environment, it’s also really important for good management – the skills and attitudes of the people handling the birds.
“Without that you can’t have good animal welfare.”
For a meat chicken producer to be RSPCA Approved, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a free-range facility.
But the RSPCA has been quoted as saying free range doesn’t necessarily equal good welfare.
“A poorly run free-range system can be bad for welfare; likewise, a well-run indoor system can give the animals everything they need.”
Are free-range or organic chickens healthier for humans to eat?
A free-range or organic chicken might not actually be “happier”, according to the RSPCA, but are they healthier for us to eat?
Nutritionist and dietitian Rosemary Stanton says there are some differences in nutrients according to the way chickens are raised and at what age they are slaughtered, but “doubts many of these will be of major significance for most Australians”.
“Differences occur for the content of protein, saturated fatty acids, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E – the latter being higher in those chickens exposed to grass and other growing ‘greens’.”
There are other things to consider.
For example, free-range chickens are more likely to catch disease, said Ms Yun Liu.
“The contact between free-range chickens and wild birds also increases the risk of spreading bird flu,” she writes in an article for The Conversation.
And a Stanford University study found there were no obvious health benefit to eating organic foods.
Researchers “did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure,” the university writes.
Are antibiotics in chickens OK?
The issue of antibiotic use in meat chickens is far from black and white.
For the chicken
From an animal welfare perspective, Dr Hartcher says the use of antimicrobials (of which antibiotics are a form) is important.
The RSPCA approves of “responsible use” of antimicrobials, but discourages using them as a preventative measure because “antimicrobial resistance is an issue of global importance,” Dr Hartcher says.
Farmers focusing on maintaining a good environment to reduce disease risk would mean there is less reliance on using antimicrobials, she adds.
There is some research that shows the use of prebiotics instead of antibiotics is better for broiler chickens – we’ll get back to that shortly.
Chickens that are organically certified aren’t given antibiotics.
For the human
When it comes to eating chickens that are given antimicrobials, Dr Sandro Demaio, who specialises in disease prevention, nutrition and global health, says it can disrupt the microbiome living in your gut.
“You have 10 billion micro-organisms living in your gut. If you’re dousing them in antibiotics or antibiotic residues that are in the food you’re eating, it’s obviously going to disrupt and change that microbiome,” he says.
An antibiotic residue is a small amount of antibiotic that remains in the edible tissues of a treated animal after the main part has been used or excreted.
The Australia Chicken Meat Federation (ACMF) says the risk of antibiotic residue in Aussie chicken meat is low.
“Antibiotics are rarely required to treat sick chickens in Australia,” ACMF acting executive director Kylie Hewson says.
“When they are required to be used to maintain health and welfare, antibiotic use must be carefully managed to ensure there are no unsafe residues which may have an impact on human health.
“Residues are managed by the use of withholding periods, to ensure that antibiotics have been sufficiently degraded and/or metabolised by the animal before they are slaughtered for human consumption.”
Dr Stanton says it’s “certainly possible” the health of a broiler chicken will affect the health of the human that consumes it.
For example, giving chickens prebiotics instead of antibiotics can influence the nutrients in their meat, 2015 research shows.
Prebiotics work by improving the microbial balance in a chicken’s gut.
“Prebiotics can exert positive effects on growth of broiler chickens, carcass and meat quality trait,” the authors wrote.
“A number of other studies have also shown that when producing meat chickens without the regular use of antibiotics, they are healthier when given pre- or probiotics,” Dr Stanton says.
A 2015 study looking at antibiotics in agriculture and the risk to human health found “while the concern is not unwarranted, the extent of the problem may be exaggerated”.
What about the taste?
There is very little research to show organic or free-range chickens taste better, Ms Yun Liu says.
You’d need to have “one outrageous palate to distinguish between an organic bird and another bird,” Dallas-based chef Otto Borsich is quoted by Reuters as saying.
“Personally, I only buy free-range, organically-produced chicken as I prefer its flavour and texture – less pale and ‘flabby’,” Dr Stanton says.
Whatever the consensus on flavour, Dr Demaio says it’s important to appreciate the meat you eat.
“When you eat the chicken, get a bunch of friends together and really enjoy it and make it into a celebration,” he says.
“You are eating an animal, and it’s a privilege to be eating meat.”