As consumers, we have a lot to sift through when it comes to food labels. For example, what’s the difference between organic vs pasture-raised chicken?
If you’re looking at store-bought chicken labels and their differences, it all boils down to how the chickens were treated as they were raised.
We all want to consume the best chicken and other animal products that we can. This is best for our health, and for the health of the animals.
Over 50 percent of Americans eat chicken once or twice a week. In fact, 30% of us eat chicken three or more times a week.
Since chicken is considered healthier meat than red meats, many of us reach for it more in the grocery store than other meats.
You may be wondering what the best meat actually is, and what the difference is between organic and pasture-raised chicken, among other farming methods.
What’s wrong with conventional chicken?
Ethically, conventional chicken has some issues. Conventional chicken creates some health concerns as well.
In the 1920s, when we had a population of around 115 million people in the United States, the average size of a conventionally raised chicken was 2.5 pounds.
Today, we’re feeding around 320 million people in the United States. and the average conventionally-raised chicken weighs 5.5 to 6 pounds.
With the growth in population and increase in the amount of meat people eat in the US, chicken farmers had to adopt new methods of raising more and larger animals. This is in part to keep up with the competition, but mostly to keep up with the growing demand.
Over time, this meant moving to what’s known as factory farming. Factory farming allows for more animals to be raised per square foot of space. Sadly, factory farming frequently amounts to less humane farm animal care.
Americans consume about 22 million chickens per day. Yes, per day.
Farmed chickens make up 70% of birds on earth. The demand is so high that the gold standard for the care of these animals has been much less of a priority for many, many years.
The priority now is production. Factory farms do whatever they can within the very loose limits of their regulations to produce as many chickens as possible as quickly as they possibly can.
This leads to all sorts of problems behind the scenes that we don’t really see or hear about. We just unwittingly purchase chicken in our grocery stores, not knowing it’s history.
The truth is, factory farming is mass production that forces these birds to live their entire lives in cramped living spaces with thousands of other chickens.
Without much space to move around, chickens can become sick and lame. And since they are in such close quarters, illnesses spread easily through the livestock.
Due to this, the chickens are given large doses of antibiotics to prevent illness. The antibiotics then has repercussions for the humans consuming those chickens.
Chicken coming from factory farms often contains things like harmful bacteria, pesticide residue, and antibiotics.
Broiler chickens are chickens raised specifically for meat. They are selectively bred so that they mature and gain weight faster. Specifically, they are often bred to grow larger pectoral muscles—the white breast meat. The white breast meat is what most people want to buy.
The Differences Between Organic vs Pasture-Raised Chicken
What is organic chicken?
Organic livestock is raised and processed differently than conventional livestock. They are fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors.
Organic chickens receive a balanced, organic diet and clean housing. These things help decrease the likelihood of disease. The use of antibiotics and feed made from other animal parts, which are often used in conventional farming, cannot be used in organic chicken farming.
In order to be considered organic, according to WholeFoods, four specific organic standards must be met:
- All animals must be raised “organically” no later than two days after hatching,
- After the two-day benchmark, they must be fed organic feed (free from animal bi-products, chemicals, or antibiotics) for the remainder of their lives,
- The animals cannot be given any hormones or drugs of any kind (the US Food and Drug Administration has forbidden the use of hormones in the US),
- The animals should have access to an outdoor area.
An organic label doesn’t mean anything about a chicken’s quality of life or humane practices during its life, transport, or slaughter.
The chickens may have access to the outdoors, but they are not living in their natural habitat for the most part. Another thing to note is that organic meat may have a shorter shelf life and presents a higher risk of salmonella, basically because it is not as sanitized as conventionally processed meat.
The demand for organic products is growing quickly. This shift means that over time we may see a reduction in price for organic foods. This is because more companies start competing for a space in the organic market.
What certifications should you look for when shopping for organic chicken?
In order to certify that these standards are met, these farms must be inspected on an annual basis by a third party to make sure these standards are continuously being met.
USDA Organic: USDA Organic-certified poultry is never given hormones. They may be given antibiotics, but only if they are sick. They are fed a vegetarian diet with no added preservatives, GMOs, or other chemicals.
Note: USDA certification does not require that chickens have access to the outdoors or consider the welfare of the chickens during slaughter.
What is pasture-raised chicken?
Pasture-raised chickens are allowed to roam free in a pasture. They eat seeds, insects, and earthworms that are naturally found in the grass.
These chickens are typically able to live in their natural habitat with their natural behavior.
They spend all their time out in fresh air and sunshine, free from stress. They aren’t given any hormones, drugs, or antibiotics.
Pasture-raised is the ideal method for raising healthy and happy chickens.
Ideally, all chickens and livestock would be raised this way. This is the healthiest and most natural way of life for these animals. This creates a stress free environment that is not conducive to illness.
Pasture-raised chicken meat tends to be healthier.
According to Pasture Bird, pasture-raised chicken is “shown to have three times the omega-3s, 50 percent more vitamin A, D, and E, and 21 percent less saturated fat.”
Note: Farmers are only required by the USDA to provide documentation in order to have their chickens classified as pasture-raised.
There is no federal standard and there are no inspections conducted to verify the correct usage of this claim. This can lead to misrepresentation without any accountability. But you can look for other certifications, mentioned below, that can be verification for some form of a better standard of living for the animals.
What certifications should you look for when shopping for pasture-raised chicken?
Certified Humane: Since there is no legal definition for either term in the U.S., Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) has standards for products that are labeled Certified Humane® “free range” or “pasture-raised”. For a product to be labeled HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Pasture Raised”, they must have no more than 1000 birds per 2.5 acres and the fields must be rotated. Chickens must also be outdoors year round with housing available so they are able to protect themselves from weather and predators.
What about free-range and cage-free chicken?
Free-range and cage-free are two of the most broad terms for chicken farming practices.
Free-range and cage-free are also two of the most green-washed terms. Meaning, they make an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are more environmentally friendly than they are.
Free-range chicken standards are not at all regulated, and can literally mean that the chickens have access to the outdoors through a hole in the wall.
In reality, free range chickens rarely get to go outside.
When buying free-range, look for the Certified Humane label. For a product to be labeled HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Free Range”, the space requirement is 2 square feet per bird and they must be outdoors for at least 6 hours a day.
Cage-free means the chickens don’t have any outdoor range at all. They simply don’t live in cages and likely have perches or dust-bathing areas.
This doesn’t mean that animal welfare is a high priority. These chickens don’t have outdoor access and rarely see the light of day.
When buying cage-free, look for the Certified Humane label. HFAC also has set standards on products labeled “cage-free”.
Battery cages and any other form of confinement are strictly prohibited and all chickens must have access to all levels of their housing at all times.
Which should you buy: Organic or Pasture-Raised Chicken
Each label or method of chicken farming has its pros and cons. When you have the opportunity to buy from a local farmer, that is your best bet.
Pick a farmer who is very transparent about their farming practices, and makes human health and animal welfare a priority.
Otherwise, choose chicken in the store that is both organic and pasture-raised with certifications.
When it comes to livestock, even if you are more concerned with human health than you are with animal welfare, you should take a moment to consider animal welfare.
The fact of the matter is, if the animals are treated poorly, their health will suffer and you don’t want to consume unhealthy meat.
Factory farming induces immense stress in animals.
Just like in humans, stress leaves their immune systems tweaked, and the animals are prone to illness from bacteria or parasites that can cause food-borne illness in people, such as Salmonella.
Unhealthy meat doesn’t mean that it won’t be up to the standards of the US Department of Agriculture or the FDA. But if you saw the living conditions and the entire process of life to slaughter for yourself, it would likely not be up to your standards.
But don’t fret, there are healthier chicken options in the stores, and I’ll give you some tips below on how to find them.
Other reputable certifications include:
- American Grassfed Association
- Animal Welfare Approved
- Certified Humane
- USDA Organic
- Food Alliance Certified-Grassfed
- Global Animal Partnership
If you’re forced to choose between either organic or pasture-raised, go with pasture-raised.
Organic birds have healthy diets, but not necessarily healthy lifestyles, which is equally important to the quality of the meat.
Pasture-raised chickens are allowed to live out their natural behaviors. Plus, they get many nutrients and minerals from the soil that improve their health and yours. The outdoor space is readily available for them to live naturally.
Overall, pasture-raised chickens are happier. And as we’ve learned, happier chickens make better meat.
Buying Organic vs. Pasture Raised Eggs
Growing up you might have thought, like I did, that “eggs are eggs”. Most of us know now, thanks to the popularity of backyard chicken coops and organic food, that not all eggs are created equal, literally.
Commercial eggs come from chickens raised in factories. They are low in nutrients and potentially filled with antibiotics and hormones.
Pasture raised eggs, on the other hand, are what the name says: from chickens raised in pastures. These chickens have access to fresh air, bugs, green grass, and plenty of space.
The pasture raised eggs typically are richer in color with a deeper orange yolk, and they have more nutrients too!
Unlike the standard white commercial eggs, pasture-raised eggs can vary in size, color and even shape but they all taste way better than commercially created eggs.
So what about those organic eggs? It can be confusing to know the difference between organic vs pasture raised eggs.
You may be surprised to learn that just because eggs are labeled organic does not mean they aren’t raised in a factory.
Organic just means that they cannot be fed food with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones or antibiotics. They could still be subjected to the life of a commercially farmed laying hen.
If you don’t have access to pasture-raised eggs, of course organic is the next best choice.
Shopping Tips for Healthy Chicken
Choosing the healthiest chicken is simple. Follow these easy tips:
- Look for the SPCA, Certified Humane, or Animal Welfare Certified labels
- When you can, choose both organic and pasture-raised chicken. If you have to choose one or the other, go with pasture-raised.
- Most of the negative impacts of mass produced animals like harmful chemical fertilizer byproducts and inflammatory fats are concentrated as toxins in the fats of the chicken. If you’re buying chicken on a budget and can’t swing organic or pasture-raised, choose the whitest and leanest cuts of meat you can get. Stay away from the fat and skin for a healthier cut of meat.
- Remember that free-range and cage-free are basically useless terms and are very misleading.
- “Natural” is another useless term that does not mean the chicken is organic, fresh, or raised antibiotic free. It just means the chicken was not altered during processing or packaging in any significant way.
- “Hormone-free” labels are not a selling point because hormones are not allowed in the production of chickens in the United States. This label is used to lead you to believe that the product is healthier than others, but it means nothing.
Choose Chicken from Local Farmers
- The best place to buy chicken is from local farmers or butcher, if possible. You may even find the cost of meat from a local farmer is actually similar to the price at the grocery store or butcher, depending on your area.
- The farmer’s market may be a good place to find the quality chicken in your area. Be sure to ask a lot of questions about the origin of the meat and the life of the chickens on their farm.
- Choose “air-chilled” instead of “water-chilled.” Air-chilled means that chickens hang from a conveyor belt and circulate around a cold room. Instead of being water-chilled in a chlorinated bath and the meat did not absorb any water during processing. Water-chilled chickens retain some of the water they are chilled in and that not only dilutes the flavor, it also inflates the price of the chicken because it increases the weight. If chicken is water-chilled it must be printed on the label.
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