There's been a lot of discussion over the past few weeks on Facebook about the hazards and challenges of buying quality chicken in Singapore. Consumers are concerned, and rightly so, to read of many "reputable" retailers mis-selling fresh chicken products ("it's organic" or "it's free range") to customers who have no way of verifying these statements. Worse still is the reluctant disclosure by some retailers that their chicken is bathed in chlorine as a way of "cleaning" the chicken and extending shelf life. It's an extremely common practice here, it's legal and SFA approved, but does that make it right? Chlorine chicken?
When I made the decision to start selling chicken back in 2011, I was absolutely clear what I was looking for and what I would not tolerate. I was never looking for "cheap chicken". I was looking for a farmer that genuinely cared about his birds, their surroundings and living conditions, as well as the quality of their feed. I would not tolerate any use of hormones to speed up the growing process nor use of antibiotics. I must admit, at the time I had no idea just how complicated things would get.
By “cheap chicken”, I refer to the factory-farmed variety we see all around Singapore, the ones that nobody can really tell you much about other than "it's from Malaysia". For me, it's chicken that's treated badly while it's alive; that’s had antibiotics, hormones and other unsavoury products added; that's not been fed well; that’s produced in a way that damages the environment — all of which are endemic to an industry that prioritises low price above all.
Free Roaming - what does it mean? You will find plenty of chicken labeled as "free roaming" in Singapore. These chickens have access to outside space, but the definition of “outside” is shaky. Does it mean there’s a window or flap that chickens could theoretically squeeze through? How many birds from a cage have access to this space? And outside could be a car park or a tiny yard. Take this term very lightly.
On the other hand, some "free-roaming" local chickens will have much more space to roam in large, clean, airy open but fenced-in barns. The only way to confirm the reality of your "free-roaming" local chicken is to buy from a trusted supplier with a positive reputation, or seek facts from the chicken farm directly via their website. Suppliers of repute should have visited the farm and should be able to tell you exactly how the poultry is raised.
Chlorine-Washed Chicken The recent disclosures by many supermarkets and chicken retailers in Singapore that they sell chicken which has been washed or bathed in chlorine after slaughter has been greeted with disbelief. Apparently, washing the chickens in a chlorine solution provides a brash, cost-effective method of killing any microorganisms on the surface of the bird. You might have encountered an 'aroma' that often emanates from supermarket chicken, or noticed how white the flesh of the meat can be - it's most likely you're seeing or smelling the effects of chlorine washing. Does that make it ok? I personally don't think so.
I source all my fresh local chicken products from third-generation Johor Bahru farmer Kenny of Toh Thye San Farm. He raises two varieties of chicken, the first being the 'common' white broiler, which is the one most often seen in Singapore - you'll find it in wet markets, hawkers, supermarkets, restaurants etc. The second type is the coloured broiler or 'naked neck' chicken, also known as Anxin chicken (安心), which is the variety that I sell at Sasha's Fine Foods. The Anxin chicken (安心) is slaughtered at approximately 14 weeks, and weighs about 2 kgs (the white broiler, by contrast is about half the weight and is slaughtered at approximately seven weeks). Most importantly, the Anxin chicken (安心) certified organic and is the only variety raised by Kenny without hormones, antibiotics and is never, ever washed in chlorine. They're allowed to grow in clean, airy, open barns which allow the birds plenty of space and fresh air. I know this because I visit Kenny and see first-hand exactly what his set-up is.
I love this blog post by Miss Tam Chiak, one of Singapore's most well-respected food bloggers outlining her own visit to Kenny's farm. Great photos and descriptions of his practices and the background to his business.