Sales of free-range chicken are falling as shoppers opt for high-welfare indoor-reared birds.

While overall sales of fresh chicken have grown 4.5% by volume to 404,097 tonnes over the past year, those of fresh free-range have fallen 5.7% to 28,185 tonnes and the free-range category's share of the market has fallen from 7.7% to 7% [Kantar 52w/e 18 April].

Cost-conscious shoppers had struggled to justify the extra cost of free-range, claimed NFU chief poultry advisor Robert Newbery. "Consumers weren't prepared to pay the extra when high-welfare indoor birds were available," he said.

Shoppers had cut costs by trading down into standard-tier promotions, added James French, divisional director for agri-processing at Moy Park. "A combination of these factors has resulted in shoppers buying fewer free-range chickens and the category is currently seeing a similar decline to the one organic saw this time last year," he claimed.

Volume sales of standard-plus chicken birds given more room than standard chicken are growing at 25% and those of value chicken by 18% [Kantar]. "There is a clear move by consumers out of the free-range category and into standard-plus," said French.

Although the industry had heavily promoted free-range chicken, demand had continued to fall, said Andrew Maunder, group sales and marketing director at 2 Sisters. There were now fewer consumers and they were buying less frequently, he added. "We have continued to support our free-range growers from the market realities, but this is not sustainable."

However French remained optimistic the end of recession would see shoppers buying back into free-range.

"We believe free-range will show a continued rate of decline for the next six months before starting to level out."

The majority of chicken products being registered under the RSPCA Freedom Food scheme were from indoor systems, not free-range, said Freedom Food chief executive Leigh Grant.