Welfare is a major consumer issue in food production, and poultry has recently come under the spotlight in Channel 4’s Big Food Fight. And one message from the programmes is the need for affordability.

Many consumers cannot afford free range and organic chicken for day-to-day meals, but still want higher welfare standards. One solution is to offer a higher welfare version of intensive chicken.

This has been the approach taken by Waitrose. First appearing on its shelves in 2003, the Select Farm brand intended to lift standard chicken to a higher level of welfare. And since its introduction, the retailer has seen sales reach an estimated 400,000 a week across its stores.

What is Select Farm?

There are several noticeable differences with Select Farm production.Birds have more room with a lower stocking density of 30kg/sq m compared with 38kg/sq m for assured chicken production, (ACP). The houses themselves are also smaller in design than standard broiler houses.

The net result is that Waitrose Select Farm sheds normally house 23,500 birds and won’t go over 30,000 says Joe Lawson, technical manager for agriculture at Moy Park, who supplies Waitrose. “However if the market demands it, house and flock size can change without impacting in any way on the higher welfare aspects of Select Farm.”

waitrose free range

Birds are grown for about 40 days, the same length of time as ACP birds, but are housed in sheds with windows that occupy 75% of the length of the house and 15% of the height – allowing plenty of natural daylight inside.

Shutters are fitted to the windows and they can close gradually to avoid any stress on the birds by sudden changes. The light can be closed off when needed, giving more flexibility as catching isn’t always performed at night.

The sheds are environmentally enriched, offering straw bales for the poultry to play with and perch on.

Birds also benefit from an increased dark period of six hours, compared with four hours in standard poultry production, and have 10% maize added to their diets to improve the taste and succulence of the final product. The result of the measures is high bird welfare, which is underlined by the low mortality rates of 2-3%.

What is the aim of the brand?

Frances Westerman, buyer for poultry and eggs, explains that the brand aims to “raise the welfare of the chicken providing as natural a product as possible – but indoors.

“We are providing a higher welfare chicken for the customer’s table. Our customers expect this.

“We carry out lots of farm visits to make sure that the system is working. We pick the birds up, check for hock burn and can prove that it’s lessening by 2-3%,” she says.

How does it differ from standard?

Mr Lawson says: “Select Farm is about forward thinking, there is a need for a brand that is somewhere in between free range and standard production.”

Mrs Westerman adds: “It challenges everything about farming providing an airy environment. Birds can see the water and feed easily, because of natural daylight. The enriched environment is provided to give the birds interest.”

And the poultry houses have distinctly different design features with double glazing on the windows. This prevents condensation build-up, provides insulation and ensures heat is maintained, says Mr Lawson.

Although the sheds initially cost more to design, they are built with the intention to last a lifetime and constructed to make sure dust and dirt are kept to a minimum, he says.

What is the value of welfare marketing?

According to Mr Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent TV programmes have helped Waitrose spread the word about what it is achieving in the Select Farm range.

“We are meeting customers’ expectations,” he says.

The supermarket has also managed to market its poultry products away from the “middle ground,” adds Mr Lawson.

“Select Farm offers a clear point of difference regarding the production of standard broilers,” says Mr Lawson. “We have tried to do something different. We have set new standards which others are now aspiring to.”

George McClean, account director for Moy Park, adds: “It has proven quite difficult to successfully market the benefits of higher welfare – however within Waitrose the Select Farm brand, already well established as setting the standard for higher welfare in chicken, is now set to roll out across the meat, fish and poultry department.”

Where next?

“If everybody follows us it would mean that Waitrose has lifted the standards for the whole of the industry. If everyone catches up it’s good news for welfare,” says Mrs Westerman.

Free range and organic

Waitrose also operates a flourishing free range and organic sector which makes up half of its regular sales.

Legislation governs the free range and organic sectors. This means that inside each semi-detached shed, for free range there must be no more than 13 birds/sq m with a minimum of 1sq m of outdoor pasture for each bird, says Mr Lawson.

Stocking density and available pasture are even more prescriptive in organic production, where no more than 10 birds/sq m are permitted inside the sheds, with a minimum 4/sq m of pasture for each bird.

The free-range birds are grown for longer than Select Farm, reaching 56 days.

“The aim of free range is to encourage birds to go out. We do this by creating a natural environment with bushes, trees, shelter and hedges so the poultry feel more comfortable,” says Mrs Westerman.

Mr Lawson adds: “Without natural cover provided by fences, hedges and the like, poultry are reluctant to venture outside.”

Typically there are two sheds at a poultry unit but the flocks are kept separately so that they cannot mix.

“We take into account the welfare of the birds, customer health with the prevention of salmonella and also environmental protection,” says Mr Lawson.

Bell drinkers are used rather than the more familiar nipple drinkers to protect water from frosts. And feed and drink are kept indoors to avoid attracting wild birds, he says.

Birds only need heat when they first arrive on the finishing farms and in the dead of winter, but bedding needs to be topped up as required to maintain a dry comfortable bed, particularly in wet weather.

At Moy Park, both free-range and organic birds are able to roam freely outside for half their life via pop holes that are 4m (13.3 ft) in length per 100sq m (1076.3sq ft) of floor space and in the summer many of them live outside in the bushes and hedges.

What about ready meals and rotisserie?

Waitrose continues to expand the Select Farm range and it recently started using it in rotisserie chicken.

And Mrs Westerman says: “Our ready meals use breast meat but Jamie Oliver has highlighted in his recent programme that dark meat is important and has more flavour, so we are looking at ways to use the whole of the bird.”

Since October 2007, Select Farm chickens have been used in rotisserie chicken cooked in-store and more recently, barbecued chicken followed suit.

Looking to the future, the retailer is now planning to use Select Farm birds in its breaded chicken, says Mrs Westerman.

While not everybody wants to change their shopping patterns due to income or personal choice, it appears that the noticeable gap in the market between standard and free-range chicken production is slowly being filled by an increasingly popular alternative.