Free-range chickens are tough to photograph—at least in France.

This was the first of many things I learned from a press event organized by Le Poulet de Janzé, a local free-range chicken cooperative that was launching its new organic chicken line. Journalists and bloggers had been invited to one of the newly-converted organic farms to learn about the line, the farmers, and so forth.

So there I was, trying to get some good shots on a blustery day because as a guest blogueuse I felt I needed to do the experience justice. I pulled on a pair of plastic booties and squished my way across the rain-soaked grass to try to get near the birds. But none of the chickens showed any interest whatsoever in close-ups, preferring to exercise their free-range rights and dash off across the field at the approach of anyone (well, me) holding a camera.

I’ve heard and read so many horror stories about chickens raised in the US—free range, organic, and otherwise– that this experience was both surprising and reassuring. There I was, seeing for myself that there are indeed farmers in this world (in France, at least) who are committed to the welfare of the animals they raise, even in large numbers. (There are 4000 chickens in each Janzé flock.)

These are the times I count myself lucky, so very, very lucky, to live and cook in France. Le Poulet de Janzé is a Label Rouge-certified, nationally-distributed poultry brand. That Label Rouge (Red Label) is key; it means that the chicken has been according to strict specifications. (Here’s everything you’d ever want to know about the Label Rouge program and specifications.) Label Rouge poultry is higher-end with a higher price point than conventionally-raised brands, but it’s not a niche product and as it accounts for over 30% of the poultry sold in France, it readily available to any cook anywhere.

Naturally, the Janzé folk built their presentation around all the ways their chickens, farms, farmers, etc. were superior to others—this was a press conference, after all. But with every detail they gave, one thing became imminently clear: Chicken welfare is the most important element in chicken farming. Period.

Indoor Space

For French and European chickens, indoor space regulations go from 22 chickens per square meter (10 square feet) for conventionally-raised chickens to 10 to 11 chickens per square meter for organic chickens. Go ahead, try to picture 22 chickens in 10 square feet. You don’t even need a gruesome photo from the internet to imagine how inhumane it is. I didn’t get to go inside the Janzé chicken coop to see what 10-chicken-per-square-meter density looks like, but then it wouldn’t have been accurate because many of the birds were scratching, pecking and sunning away outdoors.

Outdoor Space

4 square meters per bird for an organic chicken run doesn’t sound like much until you try stalking clusters of photo-shy birds to try to take their picture—and find there’s MORE than enough room for them to get away.

Committed, Compassionate Farmers

—About effing time! I’m finally going to be able to raise organic chickens!

That exclamation, from organic farmer Christophe Saffray got the biggest laugh at the press conference. All of the farmers present had different, very personal reasons for wanting to raise chickens organically. Saffray had been doing organic everything else (dairy, pork) on his farm, as had Annie Colleu and her husband, Yves Colleu. One young couple is taking over a family farm and converting it to represent their environmental values.

After he’d warmed up the room, Saffray articulated some of the other benefits of farming organically, explaining that “Organic farming is a way to keep small farms viable and allow farmers to remain close to the land.”

In other words, chicken welfare and the organic and Label Rouge standards that insure go much, much further than just turning out tastier, pricier chickens or giving them a gourmet pedigree. They’re supporting a farming economy that’s better for everyone.

Now, if only the American poultry industry would figure that out too.

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