BUYING free-range or organic chicken is not necessarily a guarantee of flavour.
Fairfax Media's Good Living put the nation's favourite protein to the taste test and the results were surprising. Of the 16 chickens roasted and sampled, those grown by conventional farming rated better than many chickens grown using free-range or organic methods.
Whole, raw chickens were purchased from supermarkets, chicken shops, butchers and health food stores, and roasted in an identical way. They included birds grown by small independent growers, who use free-range or organic methods, and those grown by the large companies whose contract growers raise thousands of chickens on individual farms.
Chicken brands were not revealed to the taste test panel, whose members included Margaret Fulton, doyenne of home cooks, and Paul McGrath, chef and co-owner of Bistro Ortolan. The panel assessed and scored appearance, aroma, texture and mouth-feel, flavour and balance, after-taste and the x-factor or, as another panel member, Anthony Puharich, of Vic's Meats, put it, "how much a chicken tastes like a chicken".
The top 10 chickens rated by the panel included conventionally-grown Red Lea, Coles own-brand, Steggles and Woolworths Fresh own-brand. The brands which made up the bottom half of the list were mostly either organic or from small producers using free-range methods.
An organic chicken from Envirorganic topped the list and a free-range chicken recently launched by Red Lea came second. Red Lea also came third with its conventionally-grown bird.
Chicken is Australia's most popular meat. Whether it's the family roast or the takeaway charcoal chook, each of us eats more than 38 kilograms of chicken meat a year compared to 34kg of beef, 23kg of pig (which includes processed meats) and 14kg of lamb.
There are four suppliers of raw chickens to the major supermarkets in NSW. Inghams Enterprises, Baiada Poultry, Red Lea Chickens and Cordina Farms, all family-owned companies, are growers and processors of chicken sold at many outlets, including hot chicken shops.
Inghams is the biggest chicken grower in Australia, closely followed by Baiada which owns the Bartter, Steggles and Lilydale brands. Along with Cordina, they produce Woolworths and Coles home brands.
Kevin McBain, chief executive of Inghams, was not surprised by the results. ''Essentially, a chicken is a chicken is a chicken. No chicken is tough today.''