This article is the third part in a series on buying chicken. Part 1 is How to buy chicken without getting punched , and the second discusses how to save money on chicken at the grocery store . In this part, I’ll describe how to interpret the dizzying array of labels that are used on packaged chicken, and give you my purchasing priorities based on what I’ve learned so far. If you would like to learn more, please consider subscribing to Almost Fit . Thanks.
As I’ve made clear in the previous articles in this series, we have opted to seek out locally farmed, pasture-raised chicken. It means a little more trouble for us in terms of turning the chicken into a meal, but we’ve decided it’s worth the extra effort. But it raises the questions: Why buy pasture-raised chicken? Why go to the trouble?
It’s more than just nutrition
In our family, cost, health, and the social implications are all part of our buying decision. In particular, I think it’s important to consider into whose pockets we as a family are pouring our money. I would much rather benefit a local, sustainable farmer supporting a family and a sense of community than a large, faceless corporation who will go to any length to acquire my money.
Certainly some corporations benefit the big picture and do good things - they provide jobs for an awful lot of families for example, and often provide products at an affordable price. But for the most part, the goal of a corporation is to increase profits by squashing competition, lowering costs by any means they can get away with, and convincing consumers that they are selling a product that the human race simply cannot live without.
I don’t buy it.
This is particularly true in food production, where large food corporations systematically drive out competition from small, sustainable farms. Family-run farms are increasingly rare, in part because large food lobbies know how to work the system to their advantage. Legislation that restricts food production standards is often NOT aimed at protecting consumers; it is often instigated by lobbyists representing food conglomerates who realize that the small farmer cannot possibly comply with the legislation passed. It’s a great way to reduce the number of competitors you have to deal with. In other words, it is aimed at protecting corporate profits. A good example of this is in many states, to be “Certified Organic” requires that you pay the state a large fee for the certification. Thousands of dollars are required just to display a stamp on your sign at the farmer’s market. For a large corporate food producer, that is the cost of about an hour of legal fees and a threatening letter or two.
For a small farmer, that is the take for the entire month of June. Whose idea does that sound like?
Another reason? You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again - industrially produced meat may be one of the single greatest causes of the impending antibiotic resistance crisis, which like it or not, we’ll all be dealing with increasingly in the coming years. The fact that meat has been given regular, heavy doses of antibiotics essentially to cover up unclean and inhumane living conditions, and fed meat byproducts with the same, will have a direct impact on the health of coming generations. I can’t support that notion, and fortunately, I don’t have to.
One last thing before I step off the stump: For me, I’ve decided that I don’t want to depend on corporate spin to determine what is best for my family . I’d rather educate myself and make my own decisions by going to the source. In many countries, Americans are sadly viewed as sheep that believe whatever the government tells them to believe . Americans, is that true? I hardly think so , but it’s up to each of us to prove it. For me that means educating myself, drawing my own conclusions, and acting on my convictions.
So how do you buy chicken?
The following is a list of our priorities when we buy chicken. Yours may vary - and that is OK - this just happens to be my order of preference.
Best: Organic pasture-raised, straight from the farmer
Organic, pasture-raised is our primary choice, but it involves a little more legwork on our part. I should emphasize that to make this choice, we did our homework, and if you’re going to buy direct you should too. Visiting the farm and asking questions about feed, chemicals used on the grazing area, and so forth, is a critical part of ensuring you are getting what you expect. A mixed, sustainable farm that incorporates other animals as part of the ecosystem best.
We buy pasture-raised on local sustainable farms for a variety of reasons, but in a nutshell:
There are a couple of things to know about buying direct. First of all, you have to have enough storage/freezer space to make it worthwhile. For many farms, chicken is seasonal, in that they butcher the chickens at only certain times of the year. Again, in our experience, pre-ordering chickens is a common requirement, so you’ll need to be prepared.
Pasture-raised chicken also cooks differently than conventional chicken. The good news is pasture-raised chicken is generally leaner and flavorful. The downside is you will have to relearn how you cook chicken. Slow cooking at a low temperature is the key.
Best grocery store option: 100% Organic, Pasture-raised
As industrially produced chicken goes, buying 100% Organic, pasture-raised chicken is my preferred choice, but it is generally very expensive. What does the label mean, and why is it worth the price to me?
100% Organic means that the chicken was raised without antibiotics and hormones. Conventional chickens are often fed arsenic - a known carcinogen - but organic chickens are not. Organic chickens are not subject to irradiation or genetic modification. The feed that is provided is 100% organic and vegetarian, meaning that it does not contain animal byproducts, although it can contain fish products. The chicken is also not raised in uninterrupted confinement, though it is only defined as “access” to outdoors, which may be next to none. Unlike conventional chicken farms, 100% Organic farms must deal with animal waste safely through healthy composting practices. Farms are regularly inspected for compliance.
Pasture-raised does not imply the standards that organic does; thus why getting a product that combines both organic and pasture-raised is best. Pastured chickens typically eat some grain, some grass, grubs, and whatever else they find in the pasture as they have done for thousands of years. It doesn’t guarantee that the farmer doesn’t use chemicals, but the organic certification helps to reduce that possibility.
One other compelling reason to seek out pasture-raised chicken? Grass provides nutrients that are passed on to us, including those fashionable Omega-3’s, beta-carotene, and Omega-6 fats in the form of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which has cancer-fighting properties. In other words, pasture-raised chickens are generally healthier chickens.
A little better than conventional, but not much: Free Range/Cage Free
Free range and cage free are terms that unfortunately have been diluted to mean very little. A free range chicken must have “daily access to the outdoors,” but the time period is up to the grower, as well as what “outdoors” means - it basically means that the chicken has been allowed out of it’s primary cage or storage shed for a little while. It can be as little as 5 minutes with the coup door open, or a simple hole cut in the side of the storage shed that leads outside to a muddy boxed-in area. Exercising the right to leave the cage is likely a matter of personal choice for the chicken…
The real catch? The USDA has allowed a gigantic loophole in the regulation of this term (thanks again, USDA). Chickens that are labeled cage free or free range may be “temporarily confined” for “reasons of health, safety, the animal’s stage of production or to protect soil or water quality.”
In practical terms this means that many of those chickens almost never see the light of day, live in their own feces for their entire life, and suffer from the same maladies that conventional chickens suffer from, such as ammonia burns and lung lesions. Hardly the picture of happy chickens that the industry portrays.
For a more gruesome description of these conditions, see this article on GoVeg.com . But be warned: you may not be in the mood for that omelet when you’ve finished reading.
OK, but not recommended: All-vegetarian diet
Chickens that have been raised on an all-vegetarian diet have one advantage - they have not been feed cannibalized chicken parts. However, it also means that they never saw the green fields of pasture in any way. An all-vegetarian diet is not the natural diet of a chicken, so the chicken meat may be supplemented with chemicals and additives to make the meat more appetizing.
Not recommended: All Natural
The “All Natural” label is in my opinion a slithery term. From what I’ve gathered, it means basically nothing. In fact, according to the USDA, “all fresh meat” is considered natural. Thanks for nothing, USDA.
All Natural simply means that the product satisfies the minimum health requirements for industrially produced meat. How they arrive at that compliance is mostly unregulated, with a few health exceptions. All Natural is supposed to have no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, or synthetic additives, but industrial food producers who use this label are not subject to certification for the term by an outside party.
Conventional chicken should be avoided when possible. In my view, with it so easy to put some deceiving label on the chicken, yet these producers don’t even TRY to do better - they make no bones about it. They’re in it for the cheapest possible product, and they could care less if the chicken is healthy. To me it is the same as being a proud, ignorant polluter who takes pleasure in the fact that they are destroying the environment.
I’m obviously not a big fan.
Here is what is minimally required of conventional mass-production houses:
Animal welfare as a priority
Animal welfare is as always a controversial subject, with very polar reactions. Whether you eat meat is a personal decision, and one that I respect either way. However, if you’re going to eat meat, here are a few quick certifications that actually do mean something (see the links for more information on their certification requirements and goals):
What you buy is up to you
The success of the mass food production industry depends on our perception that it is cheaper, just as healthy, and more convenient to buy mass-produced food products. This isn’t some hush-hush conspiracy; it’s just simple fact. And obviously, it is more than just perception - at least on the convenience aspect. One-stop shopping has been one of the greatest financial successes in human history.
But are those priorities what are most important to you? We each have to decide what we can do, and what best matches our lifestyle. In my opinion we shouldn’t waste our time and energy judging each other’s food choices. My hope is that you will come away from this feeling that the right path is to educate yourself and make changes for your family that you are comfortable with.
How to find pasture-raised chicken in your area
In the next and final part in this series, I’ll provide a set of useful ways to find pasture-raised chicken in your area. It requires a little effort, but it is simpler than you might think.
Thanks for reading Almost Fit .
Bongiorno, Lori. Green, Greener, Greenest: A Practical Guide to Making Eco-Smart Choices a Part of your Life . New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2008.
Planck, Nina. Real Food: What to Eat and Why . New York: Bloomsberry USA, 2006.
Perry, Luddene, and Schultz, Dan. A Field Guide to Buying Organic . New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.
Weinstein, Jay. The Ethical Gourmet . New York: Broadway books. 2006.