How good are free-range chickens?

It’s been a very instructive ten days for me, accompanying visiting French expert Bernard Lassaut, senior researcher at the National Institute of Agronomic Research, around regional South Australia. The purpose of his visit – at the invitation of Food for the Future – was to explain to local food producers the various ways of interpreting, identifying, assessing and assuring food quality in Europe, and their possible adaptation and application to South Australia.

Part of the interest has been in his comments and criticisms of Australian food, seen through French eyes and tasted by a thoroughly competent French palate; on his first visit here, Bernard might as well have come from Mars. He was astonished, for example, to have lamb served on a bed of couscous, the jus poured over and making the couscous soggy (in France the couscous is on the side), and thought it peculiar to serve a small dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar with bread (‘you can’t taste the olive oil because of the balsamic vinegar’). He was horrified at the idea of coriander pesto, and found the steaks at a simple barbecue style of restaurant twice as large as would be offered in France. On the other hand, he enjoyed the beef/horseradish combination (horseradish is rare in France); appreciated different ways of cooking and preparing beetroot; and in Australian Tokay discovered a wine of genuine character and individuality.

In general, he rated food quality in Australia – appearance, flavour, texture – inferior to French, comparing both products in the average supermarket category and those in the premium price range (which he thought roughly equivalent to good supermarket quality in France). At the same time, however, he conceded that France can produce not only some of the best but also some of the worst foods and wines. But we are deluding ourselves when we apply the word ‘quality’ so indiscriminately, and in most cases with absolutely no proof or justification, just as we blithely talk about ‘clean and green’ as though it were a blessing conferred from the heavens.

Having spent many years working on quality in chicken, Bernard was particularly interested in chicken farming in South Australia, where a few producers are trying to produce superior chickens by raising them in ‘free range’ conditions (but with no definition of ‘free range’, let alone any consensus among producers), feeding a high proportion of grain and slaughtering at an older age. One might imagine that these practices would result in discernibly different chickens – though one must also question how much of this expectation is influenced by rosy-hued nostalgia and images of happy smiling chooks scratching for worms and grubs. (I am reminded of the label on a packet of organic sausages at Terence Conran’s Blue Bird store in London: Fuggles Hop Sausages, from pigs with a superior lifestyle. In this case, queried Alan Davidson, is it ethically ‘better’ to end sooner the miserable existence of a battery-raised animal than brutally to deprive a ‘natural’ animal of a life of pleasure?)

Are grain-fed, free range chickens demonstrably superior to the products of industry? A ‘blind chicken tasting’ organised by the Adelaide convivium of Slow Food did not provide convincing proof. The chickens, four free range and one industrial, were all roasted in exactly the same way and served anonymously, and the experiment, while hardly conducted with proper scientific objectivity, yielded interesting results. First, the differences between the chickens were not large, and more texture- than flavour-related; indeed, my notes record ‘undistinguished flavour’ for all samples. Second, many tasters did not recognise the standard chicken, and one taster voted it favourite. Disappointingly, the assumed superiority of grain-fed, free range chickens was simply not proven.

Bernard had some explanations. To begin with, he said, French ‘Label Rouge’ chickens are a different breed and variety to battery chickens. They grow more slowly and mature later (industrial chickens are bred to be slaughtered at around six weeks) and therefore have more bone and more muscle. In Australia the same day-olds are delivered to both kinds of chicken farms and the older slaughter age of free range chickens simply allows them to deposit fat. Diet also has a role; in France ‘Label Rouge’ chickens are fed solely on grain (plus minerals) and it is illegal to use any kind of animal by-product, whether fishmeal, bonemeal, bloodmeal or any other food of animal origin. The contribution of ‘free range’ to flavour seems fairly insignificant, though important to marketing strategy. According to French research, ‘Label Rouge’ chickens formed 15% of the market 15 years ago, when they cost 50% more than the standard chicken; today they constitute 30% of the market and cost twice as much as the standard (while farmers make substantially higher profits).

Would Australians pay this price margin if there were an equivalent to ‘Label Rouge’ in this country? Some would but, unfortunately, probably not enough to justify the necessary changes. And how many would be able to tell, and to appreciate, the difference? We are not a nation of educated eaters, and the development of a food culture where people would be prepared to eat less and pay more remains difficult. Most people choose food on price (the lower the better) than on quality, and in any case don’t know what represents or indicates high or even better quality – and how can they differentiate if there are no quality differentials in the market? For centuries Australia has prided itself on the cheapness of its food, to the extent that low cost becomes touted as a measure of our assumed superiority. And what there is of an emerging food culture is nourished by food media who simply gush over the newest/the latest/the big name, only to forget it a year later. At a respected restaurant I was recently served oysters with a dollop of goat cheese curd, a disastrous combination and an insult to both the beautifully fresh oysters and the creamy curd. But when I questioned it, I was told the customers loved it!

We don’t have to rush to embrace the French model – in any case, there is a range of consumer buying behaviours in Europe and not every nation is as quality-conscious. But we do need to be more critical, to become more confident in our taste judgments, and to develop the strength to stand up and say ‘That’s not good enough’.

It amazes me now, and I don’t know where I found the vocabulary let alone the courage, but when living in France in 1977 I returned the sorry remnants of a boned shoulder of lamb to a supermarket which promoted a policy of ‘customer satisfaction or money back’. The reason for the supermarket purchase (normally I would have gone to a butcher) was the prospect of a long weekend and too little time to visit individual merchants when I had to go to the supermarket anyway (for disposable nappies). Some days later I returned the leftovers, plus wrapper, label and guarantee, complaining that the meat was tough and stringy. ‘But you ate most of it,’ retorted the customer complaints person. ‘But what else could I do? All the shops were shut for the long weekend.’ In the end I got my money back.

We don’t have to develop a culture of complaint in Australia, but we do need to encourage a disposition towards discrimination.

© Barbara Santich 1999

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