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Chicken is the most widely consumed meat in the world, at about 118 million tons worldwide and in the US, about 100 pounds per person per year. That’s a lot of thighs, breasts, wings and drumsticks. With all this poultry farming comes a dizzying array of labels designed to inform consumers of the type of bird they are getting and how it was raised. You’ve probably seen at least half a dozen of them emblazoned on chicken wraps at the grocery store; organic, pasture raised, free range and certified humane to name a few. But if you’ve ever wondered what chicken tags are actually medium and which you should look for, you are not alone.
Thanks to ever-changing USDA regulations and the fancy work of poultry farmers and food marketing firms, chicken labels are many and somewhat confusing. Here I break down the most common chicken designations so you can shop smarter, separate the important classifications from the marketing nonsense and get the best chicken for the best price.
First, it is important to know that every chicken package label must be submitted to and approved by the US Department of Agriculture. As you may already know, millions of dollars are spent each year on behalf of large chicken producers to lobby for more lenient—and in some cases, stricter—labeling. That’s all to say: these labels should be taken with a degree of skepticism.
These USDA signs are not usually advertised as loudly as other labels, but they are on every package, both whole chicken and parts. After inspection, the chicken is graded A, B, or C by the Agricultural Marketing Service, which is the branch of the USDA that inspects poultry and other agriculture. Poultry grade refers to the overall quality of the bird, including the plumpness and roundness of the meat, the consistency of the skin, and the cleanliness of the bird as a whole (presence of feathers, discoloration, or tearing of the skin), with grade A being the best. Here’s a more complete breakdown from the USDA on what each type of chicken means.
The “organic” label is good to watch out for, but keep in mind that it just means the chickens were fed a certified organic diet and often – but not always – means the husbandry practices used to feed the birds are better. Organic chicken is always free-range (the bird has access to the outdoors for at least some part of the day) and was not given regular antibiotics.
In addition, the organic chicken label does not signal anything about the quality of life of the chicken or humane practices during its life, transport or slaughter. In many cases, organic chickens may still be experiencing some of the most notorious practices of factory farming.
Chicken without antibiotics
The use – or lack of use – of antibiotics is one of the most controversial labels for chicken. Much of the chicken you’ll see for sale in grocery stores is labeled “antibiotic-free” or “raised without antibiotics.” This means that the chickens were not routinely given preventive antibiotics, which many consider harmful, but that does not mean that they were not given antibiotics if they got sick.
While the overuse of antibiotics can be problematic, some in the industry say there has been a massive overcorrection through pressure from animal rights groups to mostly remove antibiotics from poultry because they are a key tool in keeping large populations of birds healthy. when they are used. correctly. This remedy is largely due to past chronic overuse of preventive antibiotics. These days, all antibiotics must be considered necessary and prescribed by a veterinarian before administration.
No added hormones or steroids
This label means very little because FDA law prohibits any use of added steroids or hormones. If a poultry brand offers this as their big claim, there’s a good chance they’ll steer you away from those who do they are not PUSH.
All natural chicken
This is a marketing term and means nothing. There are no requirements for chicken to be labeled as all-natural; if you see it, you should probably assume it’s anything but.
Labels related to the care of chickens
Animal welfare approved chicken
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, this is the strictest poultry label based on overall humane practices. AWA Chicken is inspected annually to ensure the birds have adequate indoor and outdoor space, breed health requirements, natural light and a maximum transport time of four hours.
Certified humane chicken
This designation also represents a significant improvement over conventional standards. It means outdoor access for ruminants, pigs and poultry when accompanied by the words “free range” or “pastured”. This designation means the chickens are raised with most of the same requirements as the AWA, but not all, including no natural light required and slightly less stringent breed health requirements. Compliance audits for this designation are also required once a year.
Chicken certified for animal welfare
This six-step evaluation program for meat and egg animals is a bit more complicated. According to the ASPCA, each successive level represents progressively higher welfare and includes all the requirements of those below it. Caging, hormones and sub-therapeutic antibiotics are prohibited at all levels, standards also apply to transport and slaughter, and compliance is verified every 15 months through audits.
Chicken raised on pasture
Because there is no legal definition of the term, “pasture reared” is difficult to verify, even if it means that the birds spend a significant amount of time outdoors and on pasture. The USDA requires chicken labels to be “accurate,” but without formal guidelines, it has a lot of wiggle room.
Free range chicken
This is another label you’ve probably seen on egg cartons and chicken packages that is misleading once you dig into the criteria. “Free range” means that the chickens had access to the outdoors, but there are very few requirements as to how big or how big that outdoor space is. In many cases, poultry houses are set up in such a way that the chickens do not even use the outdoor space.
Cage free chicken
This mostly meaningless label is probably distracting if you see it front and center on a package of chicken. This is because no broiler chickens can be kept in cages and must be kept in large houses. However, this difference is notable when we are talking about eggs, because laying hens can be, and often are, kept in cages.
For more information on humane chicken labels, see this chicken labeling chart from the ASPCA.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions regarding health conditions or health goals.