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 AVA approved, but does that make it right? Chlorine chicken? We think not.
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 everywhere in 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 slaughtered cruelly; that’s produced in a way that damages the environment — all of which are endemic to an industry that prioritises low price above all.
ORGANIC vs CAGE FREE vs FREE RANGE vs FREE ROAMING
But with buzzwords such as organic, cage free, free range and free roaming (and don't forget the latest one, chlorine bathed) thrown about, it’s hard to know what or who to trust. Marketers are having a field day, because the reality is that in Singapore these terms are difficult to verify and are verbally used in the absence of a label disclosing all the information savvy consumers want, and there are few, if any, regulations to police the definitions.
So, here’s a breakdown of the facts, based on the rules laid down by the AVA as to what is and is not available in Singapore. If you hear to the contrary on Facebook, in the market or in a retail store, you will be armed with the truth.
ORGANIC CHICKEN: "Organic” has legal definitions that are set by the country of origin only, and standards vary a lot from country-by-country, so what might be organic in Australia or the UK will be a different standard to organic in Malaysia.
FREE RANGE: You will not find fresh chicken in Singapore that is "free range". The reason for this goes back to the AVA's strict rules governing the import of poultry into Singapore. Chicken can only arrive in Singapore in two ways – either alive or frozen. If alive (i.e. from Malaysia) the AVA will not allow the chickens to be free range because of their bird flu concerns. They will, however, allow "free roaming" which means that the chickens (like ours) have to be in an "enclosed environment", which can be a very large environment, but it cannot be an open field.
FREE ROAMING: You will find plenty of chicken labeled as "free roaming" in Singapore and this is approved by the AVA for both fresh and frozen products. These are chickens that 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, sadly a more likely scenario. Even producers who claim "free roaming" might only include a fenced-in section of open concrete in their chicken coups, with enough room for maybe 5% of the thousands of chickens in that house, and this may technically satisfy the term. 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. It's AVA approved. 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'm happy you can also see first hand what his farm is like and how his poultry is raised in the video above. Kenny and I talk regularly and he keeps me appraised of any developments at his end.
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.