In recent years, the price of chicken has dropped so low that shoppers today rarely worry about whether they can afford it.
What was once a luxury reserved for Sunday dinners has quickly become a staple meat for cost-effective meals.
Cheap Price, High Cost
While the rise of cheap chicken is thanks to lower costs of production and improved efficiency from factory farming, focusing only on the economics means that today’s poultry comes at a different kind of cost: one that concerns animal welfare, the spread of disease, and unnecessary pollution instead.
With these considerations in mind, modern-day meat suddenly looks far more expensive.
There’s good news if you’re looking for ways to source your chicken more sustainably.
Thanks to popular demand for higher quality food, it’s never been easier to find poultry that was raised without cruelty.
However, more options doesn’t necessarily mean that the search is simple.
Misleading industry terms and inconsistent labeling in grocery stores and restaurants can make it hard to know what quality bird you’re really eating.1)The Guardian: Where Can I buy Safer, Healthier, More Sustainable Meat?
In order to learn how to find ethically raised chicken, follow the advice in this guide so that you know where to look.
Understanding Industry Lingo
If life were easy, all it would take to know the origins of your meat would be labels like “humanely raised,” “all natural,” or “free range.”
Unfortunately, the poultry industry has much to gain from looking more ethical than it is, meaning that the labels on most chicken products often imply far more than they legally mean.
- For example, labeling a chicken breast as “cage free” is meaningless, as chicken cages are only ever used in the egg industry. In any case, even cage-free chickens are usually raised in stuffy and overcrowded conditions that leave them without room to freely move around.
- In the same way, labeling a chicken as “natural” means even less. All this term legally means is that the food product was minimally processed after butchering and doesn’t contain artificial ingredients. It tells you nothing about how the animal was raised or about the “artificial ingredients” it was exposed to in life.
- Even the term “organic” is often used to represent more than it means. Large farm lobbyists have been successful in diluting its meaning to ensure that it’s easier for them to meet the standards. This means that even organic chicken raised in factory-farm conditions and with minimal access to the outside world is at no risk of losing its certification.
Terms You Can Trust
Some food industry terms are far more meaningful than others.
The following terms make it easy to understand how your meat was raised because they have stricter standards and aren’t open to interpretation like other industry phrases can be.
Animal Welfare Approved (AWA): As an independent certification, this label ensures that the chicken in question was raised on a sustainable, pasture-based family farm. A directory of AWA certified products can be found here.
Global Animal Partnership: Consisting of a five-part certification system,2)Global Animal Partnership: 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standard for Chicken Raised for Meat the Global Animal Partnership has a multi-tiered approach to animal welfare standards. Look for their 4, 5, and 5+ ratings to seek out the farms with the highest standards for humane treatment for their animals.
Certified Humane: As a leading nonprofit certification standard, Certified Humane certification ensures that the producers met the Animal Care Standards for their animals from birth to slaughter; never kept their animals in crates, cages, or tie stalls; and fed them a diet of high-quality food without animal byproducts or antibiotics.3)Certifiedhumane.org
6 Tips for Buying Ethically Raised Chicken and Eggs
In many ways, the best ways to buy ethically raised chicken are hiding in plain sight.
You don’t need to change your entire shopping strategy: simply knowing where to look and the kinds of brands to buy is an easy way to source sustainable, delicious poultry.
Following are five strategies for finding suppliers of humane egg and poultry products near you.
1. Connect With a Local Farm
By far, the best way to understand how your chickens were raised is to visit them on the farm yourself.
If a farm visit isn’t realistic, a good alternative is to look up nearby farms online to see what they’re publicizing about their livestock conditions. When you find a farm with practices you approve of, you can connect with them at local farmers’ markets or as part of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
Need help finding farms around you? These websites are a good place to start.
2. Befriend a Butcher
Quaint as the career may sound, butchers still exist, and they typically are a source for some of the freshest, tastiest poultry around.
Because butchers often buy directly from local farms, they tend to have a good idea about the conditions their animals are raised in. By visiting a butcher, you can gain insight about local farm practices and enjoy the flavors of meat cuts often not available in grocery stores—all while supporting a local business.
3. Dig Deeper Into Your Store Selections
Shopping the meat aisle of most grocery stores can be a daunting process.
All the imagery of sunlit barns on beautiful farms makes it hard to imagine the chicken it contains actually came from an airless factory farm.
Knowing which brands are known for their high standards can be tricky, but a general rule is to stay away from big brands that dominate store shelves. Most rely on inhumane practices for raising their chickens and are best avoided if you want to hold them accountable for their actions.
A better choice is to carefully comb through the selection in order to find smaller brands with certifications you can trust, like Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane.
4. Try a Natural Food Store
Unlike regular grocery stores, natural food stores are far more likely to stock chicken from local farms and co-ops.
Because of their small size, it’s easier for them to carry limited selections of poultry from local farms that raise their animals with high standards.
You can find a co-op near you with the Co-op Directory Service.
5. Eat Smarter in Restaurants
When it comes to eating out, tracking down the origins of the meat on your plate is usually all but impossible. Now, that’s changing, thanks to an innovative new app called the Humane Eating Project.4)Foodtank: Humanely sourced meals at the tip of your fingers; A new app supporting animal welfare
Started by a San Diego nonprofit, the Humane Eating Project is a phone application with a database of over 16,000 restaurants that helps you locate ones near you that serve humanely raised meat or vegetarian food options.
The app also shows you maps to nearby restaurants and provides as much detail as possible about where the restaurant sources its food from and the certifications that it has.
Available for Apple, Android, and Blackberry, you can learn more about the Humane Eating Project from the app store on your phone.
6. Raise Your Own Chickens
For anyone with a few spare feet of yard space and a little ambition, one of the best ways to ensure your chicken is ethically sourced is to raise it yourself.
While local regulations5)Extension: Developing Regulations for Keeping Urban Chickens may dictate how many (if any) birds you are allowed to have, an increasing number of cities across the country are legalizing small flocks of hens for homeowners.
Keeping backyard chickens is easier than most people expect.
A flock of four to six birds can provide a small family with eggs for most of the year, and the nutritional benefits are truly unmatched.
Compared to factory-farmed eggs, eggs from backyard chickens with access to pasture have 25 percent more vitamin E, 75 percent more beta carotene, half as much cholesterol, and up to 20 times more omega-3 fatty acids.6)Mother Earth News: Benefits of Backyard Eggs
Backyard birds who will stay confined need a minimum of 14 feet of coop and run space per bird. If you’re planning to free range your chickens, they’ll need four square feet of coop space per bird. Ideally, you should also plan on having 871 square feet of available yard space per foraging chicken to help keep your lawn healthy and cut some of your feed costs.
Fencing made from 1/2 inch hardware cloth or electrified poultry netting makes it simple to create outdoor run spaces for backyard birds that both keep them safe from predators and allow your hens to supplement their diet with healthy fats and proteins. (And this added nutrition directly benefits the eggs, as well!)
By raising your own chickens, you can control the conditions they are raised in and the food they eat, ensuring they provide you with healthful meat and eggs from ethically raised chickens.
Finding sources of humanely raised chicken might seem hard, but it’s far from impossible if you know where to look.
Don’t be afraid to shop in new ways and seek out local options near you, and you’ll be likely to find new sources for the kind of meat you can feel good about eating.
(This article was originally published on May 15, 2017.)
The Grow Network is a global network of people who produce their own food and medicine. We’re the coolest bunch of backyard researchers on Earth! We’re constantly sharing, discovering, and working together to test new paths for sustainable living—while reconnecting with the “old ways” that are slipping away in our modern world. We value soil, water, sunlight, simplicity, sustainability, usefulness, and freedom. We strive to produce, prepare, and preserve our own food and medicine, and we hope you do, too!