Compulsory method of production labels should be used on chicken sold by retailers, animal welfare groups claimed.
Additional labelling is necessary because many consumers struggle to identify higher welfare products on the supermarket shelves, the RSPCA said.
The charity is one of several involved in the Labelling Matters campaign which calls for the European Commission to introduce the production labels as a result of its current review of poultry meat labelling across the EU.
The campaign is also supported by Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and World Animal Protection.
Eloise Shavelar, RSPCA campaign manager, said: “Farmed foods often have misleading images of rolling fields and ‘happy’ animals on the labels.
“Without clear information, many shoppers will continue to buy intensively farmed food without realising it. We need to change the system so that shoppers can choose the foods they most want to buy.”
But the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said that there were enough existing voluntary labelling schemes to reassure shoppers of high welfare standards.
Chris Dickinson, the NFU’s country advisor for West Yorkshire, said: “We struggle to get retailers to state British and Red Tractor, which is a simple uncomplicated message around good standards of welfare and husbandry, whatever scale of farm that may be. To then further define the intricacies of standards would lose the average consumer.”
Yet campaigners point to the success of mandatory method of production labels on egg boxes, introduced in 2004. The RSPCA said more than half of all eggs produced in the UK now come from higher welfare farming systems.
Ms Shavelar also criticised the voluntary Red Tractor quality assurance scheme.
“Should the EU voluntary labelling on chicken meat be made compulsory, many chickens reared to Red Tractor standards would be labelled ‘indoor intensive chicken’.
“There are some really good farms in the Red Tractor scheme which go well above the basic scheme requirements to provide their animals with higher welfare conditions but there are others which are merely working to the minimum requirements.”
David Clarke, chief executive of Red Tractor, hit back and claimed that it was in fact the RSPCA’s own Freedom Food labels that were misleading.
“Our standards and inspections help ensure that farmers meet legal requirements and more. They cover not only the health and welfare of livestock but also hygiene and safety and the traceability of food.
“We have no strong feelings either way about labelling of production systems except that, for meat animals, it will be hugely more complicated than caged versus free range eggs.
“It can even be misleading and we were interested to see the recent announcement that RSPCA is about to drop the name of its Freedom Food scheme. They now accept that many people thought it meant free range production when all along most of their meat chickens are raised indoors and intensively.
“What’s more, it is well known that the production system is not automatically linked to better or worse welfare.”