Pasture-Raised, Free Range or Organic Chicken?
When it comes to food, quality is everything. We are what we eat, but we are also what that thing ate. Meat packaging labels can be tricky, but once they are understood, we have the opportunity to select animals raised with consideration for their species specific diet and lifestyle, as well as the health and well-being of farmers, workers, and our planet. Since we eat a lot of chicken in America, let’s dive into chicken labels: pasture-raised chicken, free-range chicken and organic chicken.
A pasture-raised chicken roams free in a pasture, eating seeds, insects, and earthworms that are naturally found in the grass. These chickens live in their natural habitat, free from stress, spending all of its time on grass, out in fresh air and sunshine. They are given zero hormones, drugs, or antibiotics. This is the ideal species appropriate lifestyle for a chicken.
The problem: The USDA only requires documentation from producers to use this term. There is no federal standard and there are no regular on-farm inspections to verify correct usage of this claim. Meaning, people can put this on a label and not be held accountable for misinformation.
Look for an additional certification from HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Pasture Raised” which maintains standards and inspect farms annually. Standards include the fields be rotated, chickens have outdoors all year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night to protect themselves from predators.
The USDA’s definition for “Free Range” is that chickens must have “access to the outdoors,” which sounds reasonable, right? Except that 99.99% of modern day conventional chickens are raised in a “grow house,” which is a 600ft long x 40ft wide enclosed tunnel packed with 30,000-40,000 chickens. Google pictures! There is a small door opening that satisfies the regulation. They never make it outside because their food water and friends are inside! That is considered free range? I think not. These chickens are also debeaked to prevent cannibalism amongst each other in these confinement operations. Pesticides, drugs and antibiotics are used heavily. In fact, over 70% of all antibiotic use in the US is used on livestock. Research done by “Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that supports reduced agricultural antimicrobial use, suggest that 24.6 million pounds of antimicrobials are used for non-therapeutic purposes in chickens, cattle, and swine, compared with just 3.0 million pounds used for human medicine.”
HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Free Range” standards require a designated amount of outdoor space per chicken and are required to be outdoors for at least 6 hours per day, which is better than USDA standards.
Also, live in grow houses and given access to outdoor space, although the time outside and physical area requirements are not specified by law. An upside is that chickens must be raised with no antibiotics, and fed 100% organic feed absent of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The feed is non-GMO, however, it is not their pasture species specific diet of worms and insect. Instead it is grain based or “vegetarian fed” which includes wheat, soy and corn to fatten them quickly. In fact, these chickens get fat so quick, they cannot hold up their own weight and their legs often break under the pressure. They are ready in 6 weeks, as opposed to 11-13 weeks on pasture. Don’t be fooled by organic label or “vegetarian fed” label. It guarantees nothing about chickens’ quality of life.
Pasture Raised = no legal definition, unregulated living conditions, may include antibiotics, vaccines, gmo/soy feed
Free Range Chicken = grow houses with a door, pesticides & antibiotics & vaccines, any feed
Organic Chicken = grow houses, organic feed
Conventional Chicken = grow houses, pesticides & antibiotics & vaccines, GMO/soy feed
So what should you do? Which should you buy?
If are you are reading labels, look for these additional certifications. They are considered the most reliable labels by the Environmental Working Group (EWG):
- American Grassfed Association
- Animal Welfare Approved
- Certified Humane
- USDA Organic
- Food Alliance Certified-Grassfed
- Global Animal Partnership
How to LifeMod Chickens:
- Truly pastured chickens are preferred. Find a local farmer you can trust, as pasture on a label is not regulated.
- Visit eatwild.com to find a local pasture farm.
- Visit grasslandbeef.com for grass fed and pastured meat delivery
- If purchasing from big box retailers or supermarkets, look for the extra certifications listed above. USDA Organic Free Range Chicken with Certified Humane is your better bet.
- To learn more about agribusiness food production in America Watch the documentary FOOD INC
In closing, don’t trust your labels, meet your farmer!