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The meaning of “free-range” – Elgin chickens.

June 17, 2011

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.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Hepe permalink
    June 20, 2011 6:39 am

    That’s a good post and it’s lucky that you were able to see the farm and were motivated to visit. I always thought from our days of keeping chicken as a kid that plumage condition is a good guide to welfare. Chickens have a natural ‘pecking order’ of course, but will get out of the way of the persecution if they can. I wonder if at Elgin they choose different doors to go back inside and if they form groups? If the plumage looks fairly good they are ‘happy’.
    I think the density for real natural living is about two per sqm, but that is a domestic rate and would be unachievable for commercial purposes. I guess that Elgin’s density strikes the best welfare / commercial ballance.

  2. June 20, 2011 1:47 pm

    Yes I think thats what they’re aiming for. Which I can very much appreciate, because when you scale up to the demand at the moment its much more feasible to promote operations such as this.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBViL8gOaLU Good video for you, not sure if you’re familiar with this guy and the book by Pollan? Worth reading.

  3. Stu permalink
    June 23, 2011 4:18 pm

    Elgin free range chickens are not very ‘free range’ and are not as squeaky clean as they make out. The reason you did not see the chickens coming out to play was that they are not used to it and many already have broken and deformed legs as they are grown too quickly. They are kept awake all day and all night with bright lights which increases their rate of growth. Not so different to the non ‘free range’ chickens except that Elgin ‘free range’ they have doors on the side of the chicken houses and they cost a lot more. Those who buy these chickens must not be conned by the hype. Woolworths and Pick n’ Pay must check what the real story is behind this. Who really supplies all these chickens? Do they all come from Elgin or somewhere else?

    • June 23, 2011 5:12 pm

      As I highlighted in the article, indeed Elgin chickens are not a different breed than standard chickens and this would not be my preferred choice – I would prefer a heritage breed. I asked them about this and as mentioned there is not currently demand to make this economically viable. I’m still currently searching for an alternative producer who does use different, slower growing breeds, if you know of one, please share. I’m hoping to check out a potential supplier in the next few weeks, so watch this space.

      What I appreciated from the visit was being able to see where these birds come from, which I think others would benefit from and hopefully this would help drive more people to consider increased welfare standards. Yes sure, the Elgin model is not perfect, but what viable alternatives would you suggest that would be able to make a vast difference? I’m interested in making feasible steps forward which have the potential to have a large impact, this to me at least seems like progress that can be built upon and at least there is a degree of transparency. People are going to eat chicken in vast quantities (not what I’d prefer but a reality). I’d rather they eat birds with slightly better welfare standards than birds with no welfare standards, and hopefully doing this will encourage them to think more about their food and demand further improvements. I don’t think we can hope to promote change by merely saying “this is bad, this is corrupt, you can’t trust this etc”, people don’t listen to that and it encourages them to stick their heads in the sand and eat meat they have no idea about.

      I cannot say on a more pleasant day (it was freezing and pouring with rain) whether the birds would be out or not. There were a few out near the doors but not many. They aren’t natural looking chickens I’ll agree, but they didn’t look ill treated compared to those I’ve seen in exposures of other styles of farming. I’m pretty sure if chickens other than those grown by Elgin were being sold under the Elgin brand, Elgin would have something to say about it. The brand is built on such a reputation after all. They also do everything in house as far as I’m aware (other than breeding). I certainly wouldn’t trust labelled “free-range” chicken from PnP until I had some further knowledge of their source. Of course it could all be part of some conspiracy to exploit shoppers such as myself who are interested in ethical standards which is why ultimately I prefer to shop local and direct. At least I went and had a look and as of yet have no reason to doubt what I saw wasn’t what I was getting (albeit not what I would choose to buy myself given alternatives). Unless we raise and slaughter our own I guess we never truly know what we’re eating. Whilst this is something I aim to do in the future, for now I’m a student living on a small bursary, in rented property with little time – similar to a lot of people in the world, so I’m exploring alternatives. I’m not sure Elgin are vastly more expensive. A decent free-range bird in the UK was exorbitantly more than the standard, that’s not really true in SA – perhaps a reflection of the use of slower growing breeds in the UK. Price isn’t really the issue for me, if I could spend twice and much to buy the best bird I would, I’d just eat half as much and make up else where.

      Thank you for you comment, I would like to hear any constructive thoughts and ideas you have about how the situation can be improved?

  4. June 28, 2011 10:52 am

    Thanks for the article, and for taking time out to go and visit, see first-hand whats going on and share it. I’m a long-time vegetarian, but we feed our cats raw chicken and Elgin is the only farm I’m prepared to support. Although15 chickens per square meter seems like way too many to me and I’m sure they aren’t treated perfectly, you’re absolutely right – any step towards better welfare for farm animals is an important step. It is far better support small positive changes than to refuse to support these changes because they are not as big a change as we would like to see.

  5. william permalink
    May 15, 2014 7:58 pm

    good to know we are not eating junk

  6. May 21, 2015 12:31 pm

    For 3 weeks now I have been asking the management in stores at Woolworths where they get their chickens from. And nobody is able to or willing to answer me. One of the managers called me back and apologised profusely that she was not allowed to provide me with that information. I want to be completely satisfied that the product I purchase from Woolworths is as they say “free range”, “barn raised” and I would like to take my children family and friends to the place where these animals (that we consume) are not genetically modified or pumped with steroids and hopefully live the life that Woolworths advertises. Strange how a company that markets itself as a saint cannot or won’t provide me with the information (which is my legal right), I have logged a call at the customer service centre a week ago and they too have feedback that management is still reviewing feedback. What is the issue or the lie here? Got to ask yourself the question “if I pay more for the promise where is the proof of that promise being a reality!!!!?” And let’s not forget Woolworths DO NOT respond to complaints on Hello Peter of which they have 1,465 complaints in the last year and only 167 compliments.

    • May 21, 2015 1:10 pm

      Hi Glenn,

      As far as I am aware -in Cape Town anyway, and at the time I wrote this, Elgin were supplying the own brand “free range” for Woolworths. I’m not sure if this is still the case, or whether Woolworths use other suppliers for free range as well. I’m also not sure if free range is still not a legislated term in South Africa – this is the major source of concern all round I would think. I’m back in the UK now, and free range/organic/outdoor bred/outdoor reared all come with specific practice, which does help.

      Specifically with regards to Elgin – you can always buy their branded products at PnP, or at their factory shop, which was what I always did to be sure I was getting the product I’d seen at the farm.

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