The Poultry Welfare Forum, a cross-industry group set up by Defra in 2008, has asked researchers at Bristol University to test to what extent consumers understand the various terms used by suppliers and retailers to label chicken currently. Researchers will also test consumer reactions to new terms that could potentially be used for broiler labelling.
Fieldwork for the research starts shortly, with the first results expected in the autumn.
Whereas the use of the terms 'organic' and 'free-range' is strictly regulated, there are no rules in place to govern how medium-welfare products are identified. Terms used by suppliers and retailers to suggest higher-welfare standards include Oakham Chicken, used by M&S, Willow Farm, used by Tesco, and the RSPCA's Freedom Food.
Clear labelling was needed to ensure consumers who wanted to trade up to higher-welfare chicken could identify it, said a spokesman for the RSPCA, which sits on the Poultry Welfare Forum. "The situation is very clear for eggs, where it says barn, free-range or battery," he added.
NFU poultry adviser Robert Newbery said he was not convinced consumers were confused about the terms used to label chicken at the moment. "But if the research shows the terms aren't sufficient, that is something that will be helpful to industry."
According to the RSPCA, 21% of UK-produced chickens sold here are higher-welfare, organic or free-range. About 5%-10% are reared using EU minimum welfare standards, with the rest produced using higher, Assured Chicken Production standards.
Any terms, labels or logos potentially agreed by the Poultry Welfare Forum as a result of the research would be implemented on a voluntary basis.