The meaning of “free-range” – Elgin chickens.
There’s been some discussion recently about how far you can trust a free-range label. Especially in South Africa. And it seems no one can really give a straight answer. I’ve heard some reports that free-range for chickens can mean as little as access to a dust bath and a little sunlight and there’s been some horror stories of companies naming themselves “free-range” to get this foodie buzz word attached to their products whilst avoiding the business compromises which have to made to move towards genuine free-range and better ethical standards for animals.
So in my mind at the moment I can only be sure that a product meets the standards I’m happy to support if I see it myself. This is exactly what I did last week with a visit to the largest free-range producer and supplier of chickens in my region, the Western Cape – Elgin Free-Range Chickens.
I first met owner, Jeanne Groenewald at the Good Food and Wine Show this year. I had been buying Elgin Free-Range Chickens (FRC) as my most easily accessible (they supply Pick n Pay and Woolworths) free-range choice since I moved to South Africa. At her stall she had some beautiful photo’s and a video of the birds on the farms and I was really impressed when she offered me to visit and see their standards myself.
As far as I know, most large scale chicken farms won’t allow visitors for ‘bio-security’ reasons – despite their birds often being fed routine antibiotics to drive away infection which proliferates in the often crowded conditions. It makes you wonder what they are hiding. Whilst Jeanne did mention that she cannot open the farms continually for public tours for this reason (and their birds aren’t fed antibiotics), she states that in small numbers anyone interested is welcome to come and see for themselves.
We were met bright and early by Jeanne and husband Bryn on a miserable day at the Peregrine farm stall in Elgin (this is a lovely farm stall, definitely visit it if you have the chance!). We travelled out to one of the 5 chicken farms which work under the Elgin FRC standard. All the farms are within the near area (about an hour) of the brand owned abattoir – an additional comfort as Elgin FRC’s standards can be followed through from beginning to end and long, stressful journeys are avoided.
All our questions were answered as we were shown around the farm by the very knowledgeable Bryn and farm owner – Nathan. The birds are housed in long barns with pop holes (big doors) which are opened once they are older than 2 weeks so that they may roam freely around the grounds outside. The birds are kept at much lower capacity than industry standard (15 birds per square metre instead of 25) and this helps keep them less stressed and helps prevent disease in the absence of routine antibiotics in their grain based feed (no animal/fish products).
It’s an interesting experience being that close to an animal you’re potentially going to eat. This scale of operation is probably not the image most people have in their head about chicken farming, and in fact farming in general – ironically I imagine people who are concerned enough to buy free-range are probably well aware of the necessity of large scale operations, whilst people who aren’t concerned I imagine think of the intensively reared chickens they buy frolicking around small, traditional farms. To me though, Elgin FRC represents real, feasible change that can be made to the farming industry. It should be the minimum standard model for rearing large numbers of birds in the most ethical manner. The success of the brand (it supplies free-range chicken to all PnP and Woolworths in the Western Cape and some stores beyond) is testament to it’s potential. And the openness with which all aspects of the business were made available to us makes me confident in the integrity of the brand.
It was interesting to learn more about how farming works and the many issues that have to be contended with. From reading I imagine a lot of large scale farming operations to be single minded in pursuit of mass production of one product, with little regard for environmental degradation etc. This was not the impression I left with from Elgin. It was nice to hear about the use of the chicken manure to help fertilise organic crops on the farm, and of the plans and ideas farm owner Nathan had for using legally obligated woodland clearance for helping power the chicken houses.
In a perfect world I would like to be able to buy slower growing, longer lived, arguably more natural breeds of chicken to eat, so maybe one day, as Jeanne started, I will keep my own. Elgin chickens are the usual broiler breed used in chicken farming (Cobbs), so I asked Bryn about the potential of using slower growing breeds (in the UK for example they take 56 days to reach slaughter weight instead of the minimum of 30 days of typical broilers (longer for Elgin FRC’s)) and he said this would be nice, but getting the initial breeding stock in would be a massive undertaking and I imagine in South Africa the demand for this would be small. For beginning to tackle the big and urgent issues associated with animal welfare and food quality though, the Elgin FRC model is second to none. In my mind being serious about environmental and ethical change means understanding and working with the system to reap the biggest benefits. Granted buying an Elgin FRC will cost you more than a standard bird, but I think this only lends itself to better buying habits. As a student I have to watch my finances a fair amount, so I always buy a whole chicken each week and even use the carcass for stock. With these principles in mind I buy less quantity, better quality meat and make it go further.It’s better for my health and better for the environment and the animals and this way I can afford it.
As I mentioned, it rained all day when we visited Elgin and the chickens were doing what I should have been doing and staying inside, despite the doors being open for them to roam free! Only a few brave ones ventured out to explore. We didn’t get any good pictures as the light on the dreary, early morning of our visit was terrible, however Jeanne offered for us to come back another time and I hope to take some photos to use for the design on my new business card for the blog! In the meanwhile here are some photos from Jeanne, so you can see the set up and the freedom the birds have.
Many thanks again to Jeanne for offering me (and Ben) the opportunity to visit the farms and to Bryn and Nathan for showing us around and answering all our questions thoroughly.