'No enforceable industry standard': More criticism of free-range chicken farmers

An organic farming industry group has called into question the regulations governing chicken farms, claiming there is no industry standard for free-range.

The conditions on some New Zealand chicken farms have been under fire after video was released by animal rights campaign group SAFE.

The footage shows thousands of chickens crammed into a small shed, hardly able to stand up, dying inside the shed and lying there to rot.

It said it was filmed at a free-range farm in Auckland.

The Poultry Industry Association New Zealand (PIANZ) disputed the claims saying the footage was old and not indicative of other farms.

However, the Soil & Health Association, which represents organic farmers, said the only way to ensure that chickens are genuinely free range, is to choose organic.

Co-chair Marion Wood said there was no enforceable industry standard for free-range farming. 

"Farms are regularly audited by the Ministry of Primary Industries for food safety standards, but these standards do not relate to auditing free-range farming practices," she said.

"What this means is that the scope of a ‘free-range’ label on your chickens is actually very wide," said Wood.

She said while people think of happy chickens wandering in a field, the reality is that the label 'free range' can be used by farms that confine their hens to small spaces or subject them to overcrowding.

In 2014, it came to light that a farmer had been selling cage eggs as 'free range' for more than two years.

"This was something that slipped under the radar because there was no authority checking such claims."

She said certified organic chicken farms are audited every year.

"To get BioGro certification, farms must not have more than 10 hens per square metre in fixed housing or 16 per square metre in mobile sheds."

Hens must have also have unrestricted access to outside runs and access to fresh grass or a forage crop containing a diversity of species. 

"Certified organic chickens are healthy chickens with a good quality of life – something that the 'free-range' alone doesn’t guarantee."