Leading high-end U.K. food retailer Waitrose is set to launch this week the country’s first chicken that is a source of omega-3 fatty acids.

The new chicken, which is unique to Waitrose, is produced by Moy Park on family farms in Northern Ireland to the supermarket chain’s high welfare standards. These include plenty of natural light and more space than the industry standards, allowing the birds to display natural behavior.

What is new is that the chicken meat is enriched by feeding the birds on a diet containing an alga - the family of aquatic plants that includes kelp and seaweed - naturally rich in omega-3. The taste and appearance of the chicken is the same as birds reared on a conventional diet. The innovation has been developed by a partnership between Waitrose, Moy Park and animal nutrition specialist, Devenish Nutrition.

Health benefits of omega-3s

Omegas-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids, which help to maintain normal heart, brain and vision function as part of a healthy diet.

The decade-long project is in response to concerns from the medical community that consumers are not getting enough omega-3 in their diets. This is a particular concern in children, who often do not like oily fish. To help improve intake, the idea was conceived of developing a more popular protein containing a source of omega-3. Chicken is Waitrose’s top selling protein.

“Our research is showing that this nutritional breakthrough has the potential to have a significant impact on health,” said Heather Jenkins, Waitrose’s Agricultural Director. “What’s exciting is that it’s improving the nutritional content of something which customers already consume frequently as part of their diets.”

“Food and farming innovation are important focus areas for Moy Park and we are proud to be the first poultry company in the UK to produce chicken enriched with omega-3,” added Justin Coleman, Moy Park Agriculture Development Manager. “Including omega-3 in the chickens' natural diet makes this already healthy food even healthier.”

Trials have demonstrated that people eating enriched chicken for five weeks had increased levels of omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and see measurable effects on their cardiovascular health. Initial testing was carried out on 30 healthy participants whose omega-3 levels were measured after 1, 3 and 5 weeks of eating 5 servings per week of omega 3-enriched chicken meat. On average, participants saw their levels of omega-3s increase by 12 per cent.

Omega-3 chicken in the U.S.

An alternative approach to producing omega-3-rich chicken is taken by Simply Essentials LLC of the U.S. The company says on its website that its chicken is the first to feature the flavor and health benefits derived from Simply Essentials’ proprietary flax seed diet. This USDA Process Verified flax seed diet naturally raises the level of omega-3 fatty acids in the protein by up to 400 per cent, while also lowering the cholesterol by up to 40 percent.

Last week, Simply Essentials announced it had purchased the Cedar River Poultry chicken processing plant in Charles City, Iowa, and that it will invest more than US$30 million to reopen the plant in the fall of 2016. The plant is being designed with air chilled processing technology, which the company says results in superior chicken flavor.