Livingston’s Foster Farms enters another niche in the chicken business

Foster Farms launched a line of free-range chicken Thursday, produced from birds that have access to the outdoors.

The Livingston-based company, the top-selling poultry brand in the West, is offering free-range versions of several fresh chicken items. The launch does not involve its turkey, which is produced in Turlock, nor any of the breaded, marinated or otherwise prepared chicken.

Shoppers will pay slightly more for the free-range chicken than conventional, said Helen Kurtz, chief marketing officer and senior vice president, in a phone interview Wednesday.

“What we see is that consumers are more and more concerned about animal welfare,” she said. “They really want to know that the chicken they are buying had a happy life.”

Foster Farms is not disclosing the volume of free-range versus conventional production. The new line will be raised at ranches supplying its plants in Fresno and Kelso, Washington.

Conventional chickens spend their entire six-week lives inside large barns where they can move about on the floor. The free-range flocks at Foster Farms will get access to the outdoors 12 hours a day but come in at night, when predators are out, Kurtz said. The outdoor areas are off-limits to the public, part of industry safeguards against avian diseases.

Outdoor access is already required for organic chicken, which Foster Farms has produced since 2015. The organic standard also mandates that the feed, mainly corn and soybeans, be grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

The new free-range line is part of the Simply Raised label at Foster Farms, which includes antibiotic-free chicken along with the organic products.

Foster Farms is advertising the new line with a pair of ads on streaming platforms such as Hulu, Roku and YouTube. They feature chickens cavorting to 1990s-style boy and girl bands.

“Well look out, world, me and the girls are going out,” one group sings. “The sun’s shining down, so we’re gonna shake and shout.”

Max and Verda Foster founded the company at a ranch west of Waterford in 1939. It now employs about 12,000 people in turkey processing in Turlock and at chicken plants in Livingston, Fresno, Porterville, Oregon, Washington, Louisiana and Alabama.

Foster Farms became the West’s largest organic poultry producer four years ago, and it likely will be a key player in the free-range part of the market.

“Foster Farms is always doing things creatively by listening to their consumers,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, based in Modesto.

John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.