A chicken is a chicken is a chicken—right? Many consumers still think so, but thankfully the tide is turning. Slowly but surely, our convenience-driven society is starting to ask the right questions about both conventionally raised and organic chicken.
No longer are they just concerned about price per pound.
Now, they’re also wondering:
How healthy was this chicken when it was alive?
Is this meat contaminated and going to make me sick?
Did this bird receive constant doses of low-level antibiotics?
Awareness Is Growing
This shift in the modern food system is leaving more customers than ever concerned about the life their meal lived before winding up on their plate.
Concerns about tainted meat1)http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2014/02/the-high-cost-of-cheap-chicken/index.htm and the growing threat of antibiotic resistance2)https://thegrownetwork.com/antibiotic-resistance/ means that sourcing clean, healthy, and sustainable poultry is more important than ever.
For this reason, many people are turning to organic certification as guidance for buying their chicken.
According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic poultry in the U.S. rose 11 percent in 2013,3)https://www.ota.com/resources/market-analysis and the number continues to climb. Even so, organic chicken still makes up less than 1 percent of the total poultry market, meaning there is plenty of room for demand to grow.
While most conscientious customers equate “organic” with health, sustainability and humane treatment for animals, few have a solid understanding of what the term specifies.
To uncover exactly what organic certification legally means and what it only implies, let’s look at the facts.
The Meaning Behind ‘Organic’
The term “organic” is property of the USDA, meaning it has legal control over the kinds of products that are certified.
In regards to chicken and other poultry, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is the authority that sets the definitions4)http://www.seriouseats.com/2015/02/what-is-organic-free-range-chicken-usda-poultry-chicken-labels-definition.html for common labels like organic, free-range, cage free and more.
The difference with organic food comes from the way it is produced. Per the USDA,5)https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/What is Organic.pdf organic growing must “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.“
By regulation, organic food must be grown or raised without pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and synthetic fertilizers, and be free from genetic engineering.
The Specifics for Chickens
Being organic is a lifelong process for poultry.
From the time they are two days old, organic chickens are fed a balanced diet of organic feed, live in generally clean housing that provides more than two square feet per bird,6)http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/01/18/510474179/organic-chickens-get-more-room-to-roam have access to the outdoors, and are never treated with antibiotics.
In order to maintain their organic certification, chicken farmers need to follow strict standards and have their farms inspected regularly by the USDA.
Organic Chicken Growing Conditions
While many farmers find the requirements for raising organic chickens to be more than sufficient for promoting animal welfare, the mental image most people have of the life of a typical organic chicken is likely far from reality.
For example, though organic chickens are required to have outdoor access, there are few provisions about how much time they should spend outside or even how much space they need.
This means that many organic chickens live their lives in factory farm settings where “outdoor access”7)http://homeguides.sfgate.com/difference-between-organic-freerange-chicken-79293.html is restricted to small cement pens that few, if any of the chickens take advantage of.
In fact, a study8)http://www.organicagcentre.ca/Docs/AnimalWelfare/Soil Association/Welfare standards organic v free range.pdf from the UK looked at the ‘free-range’ tendencies of 800,000 organic birds and found that even though the birds technically had access to the outdoors for eight hours a day, fewer than 15 percent of the birds were ever outside at any time.
Because chickens evolved foraging under trees and tall greases, it seems they have little preference for the overly bright, open air spaces that conventional farms provide for them to range in.
Should You Choose Organic Chicken?
While organic chicken has grown in popularity throughout the world, some diners aren’t sure that it’s worth the cost.
Store brand chicken usually costs $1.50 per pound, but the price of organic chicken ranges from $2.50 to over $10.00 per pound.
Complicating the situation farther, nonorganic chickens are often plumper than organic birds, both because of their heavy diet optimized for weight gain and because they are processed with water to add an appearance of juiciness.9)http://www.reuters.com/article/us-money-chicken-organic-idUSKBN0FM24Q20140717
Finally, while grass fed beef and pork has a distinctive flavor when compared with conventionally raised cuts, it’s much harder to taste the difference between organic and nonorganic chicken.
However, the higher price comes with some significant benefits, both for the environment and for those who eat it.
If you want your meat to be free from antibiotics, genetic engineering and raised in a way that takes the sustainability of the environment into consideration, paying for organic chicken is worth the cost.
Does Farm Size Matter?
As the popularity of the organic movement has grown, so has the size of the farms that provide organic meat.
In fact, large-scale producers now dominate the organic industry to the point that smaller growers are often crowded out.
This can make comparing organic practices between farms a little like comparing apples and oranges, as the commitment to sustainability can vary considerably based on the size of the farm.
Inevitably, larger farms often get away with more lenient practices.
Part of the problem comes because large farms can afford to hire lobbyists to shape the policies for organic certification.
Because large farms have the most to lose when organic regulations become stricter, they tend to push for looser standards10)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/business/organic-food-purists-worry-about-big-companies-influence.html so that they can maintain their profitability.
For this reason, large organic farms often more closely resemble conventional factory farms than the pastoral ideal that most organic enthusiasts prefer to picture.
Similar Terms and Their Definitions
While the term “organic” may be more loosely defined than most consumers prefer, it’s just one of over a dozen terms used to describe different ways of raising chickens.
Like “organic,” many of these terms also imply far more than they legally mean.
Most are designed for factory farm operations, and some brands (like Perdue)11)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YkbpH0gjKs&feature=youtu.be even pay to receive USDA certification that is exclusively for them. For this reason, it’s often a good idea to take the implied claims on chicken labels with a grain of salt.
Some of the most common classifications for grocery store chicken are below.
Poultry Grades: Poultry grades are ways to categorize the physical characteristics of each bird, including the plumpness of meat, the distribution of fat, and overall bone structure.
All chickens inspected by the AMS are given a grade of A, B, or C, with Grade A poultry being the highest quality.
However, poultry grades indicate nothing about how an animal was raised and instead refer to the quality of the cut.12)Serious Eats: Know Your Chicken. What USDA Poultry Labels Actually Mean
Free Range: To be considered free range, chicken producers must provide their chickens with outdoor access for at least half their lives.
However, the term doesn’t require birds to actually spend time outside,13)http://homeguides.sfgate.com/difference-between-organic-freerange-chicken-79293.html meaning that “free-range” birds are often tightly packed into indoor coops with small cement paddocks that few, if any, of the birds spend time on.
This means that many of the birds labeled as free range in the grocery store may never have spent more than a few minutes outdoors, much less on pasture. However, similarly certified free range birds may have spent their lives on gorgeous green pastures- making the term largely meaningless for any real insight.
Cage Free: Legally used as a label for egg-laying hens, “cage free” refers to the fact that the hens weren’t kept in cages to make collecting eggs more efficient.
While all birds raised for meat are cage free, some brands still carry the label as an attempt to earn consumer credit for a practice that is already standard throughout the industry.
No Antibiotics Administered or Raised without Antibiotics: Because poultry is usually raised in enormous flocks, diseases can spread quickly.
For this reason, most conventional farmers use antibiotics to keep their birds from getting sick.
Chicken labeled ‘no antibiotics administered’ was never treated with antibiotics, meaning that the farmer responsible found other ways to maintain the health of his flock.
No Hormones: Using growth hormones and steroids on poultry has been illegal since 1959, so any producer that advertises that their birds are hormone free is taking credit for something that has long been standard in the industry.
Natural: This term refers to meat that isn’t overly processed and doesn’t contain artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. Because almost all poultry falls under the category of “natural,” the term is largely meaningless.
Fresh: To qualify as fresh, chicken can’t be cooled below 26 degrees Fahrenheit before being sold.
While the organic regulations for chicken don’t go as far as many people would prefer, they are a standardized way to get a sense of the origins of your meat.
Choosing certified organic chicken might not guarantee that your bird spent its days foraging for worms under the sunshine, but it ensures that it was raised on an organic diet, without antibiotics, and with access to the outdoors.
If you’re looking for a way to become more conscious about the food you eat, choosing organic chicken is a smart place to start.
Marjory Wildcraft is an Expedition Leader and Bioneer Blogger with The [Grow] Network, which is an online community that recognizes the wisdom of “homegrown food on every table.” Marjory has been featured as an expert on sustainable living by National Geographic, she is a speaker at Mother Earth News fairs, and is a returning guest on Coast to Coast AM. She is an author of several books, but is best known for her “Grow Your Own Groceries” video series, which is used by more than 300,000 homesteaders, survivalists, universities, and missionary organizations around the world.