Ever find yourself in front of the chicken display at the market trying to figure out the difference between free-range, pastured, and organic? And whether buying the more expensive organic chicken is worth the extra money?
We recently had a reader write in and ask for help deciphering the confusing labels we see on chicken packaging, so I’m going to do just that.
There are several different claims you see made on chicken packaging:
No hormones added
Raised without antibiotics
So, what do they all mean? Which one do you buy? Here’s a brief overview . . .
Organic. An “organic” label on your chicken doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your most humane option. Organic chickens have eaten feed that was grown without chemicals or GMOs, and the USDA goes to great lengths to ensure that chicken labeled “organic” has been produced 100% free of chemicals. However, the chicken wasn’t necessarily raised in a nice, happy environment.
Natural. Natural chickens have no artificial ingredients and no added color. Really, all chicken is natural, so if it’s raw chicken, that should sort of be a given.
Cage-Free. This sounds like the chicken in question had a nice and happy life. But “cage-free” just means that the chickens live inside warehouses or barns, not in a cage. They can walk around and nest, but they’re rarely let outside.
Free-Range. Free-range chickens are allowed to go outside for at least part of the day. They generally have an enclosure, but they are given access to the outdoors.
Pastured. This is the one you want to buy. Pastured poultry has been allowed to hang out in the great outdoors eating its natural diet under the sun. Essentially, these birds have been raised humanely outdoors (as chickens should be).
No hormones. The USDA does not allow for hormones in raising poultry. When a package of chicken claims there are “no hormones added,” that statement must be followed by something that says, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
Raised without antibiotics. We want to avoid ingesting as many antibiotics as possible, and most factory-raised chickens are pumped with antibiotics to prevent the need to deal with illnesses in their birds.
Ideally, you’re going to want to look for organic, pastured chicken from a local farmer.
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A million thanks for clearing this up! I’m trying to eat healthier and just two days ago I purchased “free range” chicken. Now I know that “pastured” is best. The packages I bought also had on them “Animal Welfare Rating: 2, Enriched Environment”. Does anyone know what this means? (Some other brands had a rating of 4.) Thanks, again.
That’s Whole Foods’ animal welfare rating system. They explain what all the steps are on their website. But, in a nutshell, your chicken was raised indoors in a little bit better “chicken environment” than most modern chickens are raised. For future reference, the 4 rating is quite good. It means the chicken was pasture raised but slaughtered off-farm.
I don’t think the terms are used consistantly by farmers. We have always called our chickens “free range” thinking that means they are raised outdoors and given the freedom to wander as they please. According to these definitions, ours are really “pastured” chickens.
If you really want to know where your food comes from, try to find some place where you can ask the farmer how is was raised.
My friend also told me something similar about choosing eggs – pastured is best. I have to look hard to find any pastured label on eggs or chickens. Any tips on grocers who carry these? In CA?
How is the title related??
I was going to ask the same thing! “never buy” WHAT “again”?????
Look for a CSA in your area. Some also have milk, meat, eggs, etc. – depending on local regs.
stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”, and is a way for local
farms to produce fresh fruits and vegetables for people in the
neighboring community. Families or individuals purchase a “share” from
the local farm, and in doing so are provided with weekly, fresh,
seasonal produce throughout the designated time frame.
Pastured chicken is your best bet, but it is stiil hard to find chicken not fed soy. You are what you eat eats.