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Deciphering Chicken Labels - Because Free Range Doesn't Always Mean What You Think!

So you're at the grocery store, standing in front of the chicken display. Making sure you feed your family high quality, nutrient dense food, free from chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, GMO's, etc. is all important to you. But there are so many choices! Organic, Free Range, All Natural, Vegetarian-Fed, Hormone and Antibiotic Free, Pastured, even Amish Raised are words you'll see on labels.  

I've been there, it's overwhelming, which is why I wanted to talk through some of the claims and what they mean, or don't mean. 

Hormone and Antibiotic Free - It's illegal to feed hormones to any type of poultry, in any production system in the United States. Some integrators will still use antibiotics in their birds, others are moving away from the practice. Either way, if proper withdrawal periods are met there should be no antibiotic residue in the meat.

Are there other big issues with feeding animals antibiotics and are there probably instances where withdrawal periods aren't met? Yes, I truly just don't know how often it's happening. There was a Whole Foods turkey scandal within the last few years where USDA inspectors found traces of an illegal growth hormone and antibiotics among other substances in turkey labeled as being raised without either, so I can't say it isn't a concern. 

All Natural - just like I talked about in my blog post about beef production, this means nothing. Chickens are fed a typical conventional feed, raised in the typical confinement broiler barns, they probably weren't fed antibiotics or hormones (which again, is illegal to feed any poultry produced in the United States anyway), but otherwise are no different than the other products on the shelf without the all natural sticker. 

Free Range - this is a super confusing one. So back in the day when the term free range first started to be used it meant literally, the chickens were free to roam about the farm eating bugs and worms and doing chicken stuff. Then the chicken industry latched onto this and USDA ruled that the "free-range" label can be used when chickens are raised in conventional broiler barns, on conventional feed, but given "access to the outdoors" at some point in their lives.

This typically takes the form of a little fenced, concrete lot with a little door that is opened when the chickens are 5-6 weeks old. Broiler chickens are processed at 5-6 weeks old, and after spending that much time indoors they likely don't venture outside at all in their last few days of life. And there's nothing to do out there besides walk around on a concrete pad. 

Free-Range doesn't mean anything unless you visit the farm and can see that the chickens are actually roaming about in pasture!

Organic - these chickens are raised in the same confinement broiler barns as conventional birds only fed an organic feed. They don't get to venture outside because they might eat a bug or seed that isn't certified organic. There has been a big scandal lately about cheap, but fake, organic grain being imported from China, so what's being labeled as organic grain, probably isn't. 

Vegetarian Fed - chickens are not herbivores, they are omnivores which means they prefer to eat both plants and animal proteins to meet their dietary needs. We can use high protein plants and grains to meet these needs, but their natural diet includes things like bugs, worms and on occasion even a frog. If your label says the chickens were vegetarian fed, they were more than likely not given access to the outdoors at all because they might eat a bug and not be vegetarians anymore! 

It could just mean their feed was 100% vegetarian, but you'll need to ask. Our feed includes a tiny bit of fish meal to add protein, but some feeds might include other animal byproducts. 

Amish Raised - I didn't know this was a thing until I was in Chicago for a conference and every restaurant had "Amish Chicken" on their menu. Now I know some great pasture-based Amish farmers, but I also work in the Ag lending world and can tell you with certainty that this Amish chicken was raised in a conventional broiler barn. Depending on what the specific Amish community allows as far as amenities, sometimes barns have to be retrofitted to run off natural gas or propane, but they operate in the same manner, work with the same few poultry integrators, feed the same feed, etc. as a typical "English" conventional broiler barn. 

Don't be fooled by the buggy on the label, it's the same chicken as the cheaper stuff sitting next to it on the shelf.

Pastured - Finally, I can go full scale pastured poultry nerd and tell you why I am so passionate about this and believe this method of production produces the best tasting and healthiest birds! 

The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA for short) created this video showing pastured poultry production in action and talks about why pasture-raised poultry is so far superior to any other product on the market. How chicken is raised and what they eat really does make a difference!  

You've read enough of my words, so I'll just let the video tell the pastured poultry story! 

 

In closing, while I truly believe our chicken and method of production are far superior to anything else available, I do not villify commercial chicken farmers. While I have heard stories of some chicken farmers who won't actually eat the chickens they produce, for the most part these farmers are doing what they believe is a good thing and just trying to make a living for their families. 

Cheap food has it's place. With a messed up food system like we have right now when families are struggling to keep their bellies full, I'm grateful there is an affordable option beside processed, prepackaged junk. What bothers me is that "creative" aka fake marketing is fooling consumers into thinking they are buying a quality product when the reality is, they are charging more for the same conventionally raised chicken with a fancy label stuck on the package. 

I was shocked recently when Pasturebird - a pastured poultry farm out of California - posted they were approached by Whole Foods to visit their farm to take pictures and videos for marketing purposes saying their farm was "a farm that represented what their products stood for". As in, the chicken on our shelves isn't actually raised on pasture, and we don't want to spend the money to source real pastured poultry, but we want our customers to think they were raised on pasture. Super shady. 

I feel strongly though that we need to move towards a more localized food system with fewer large scale integrators and more individual farmers or local cooperatives providing products directly to our own communities. We want you to know your farmer! 

I know as farmers we have a reputation for just wanting to be left alone with our animals in our fields, but at least for Jesse, Eliza and I that couldn't be further from the truth. We absolutely love interacting with all of our customers, love having people visit the farm, chat with us at the Farmer's Market, the connection with you and your family is what keeps us going!  

As food eaters and buyers we have the power to control the direction the food industry moves in. We vote with our food dollars every day! 

By feeding your family locally-raised pastured poultry, you are contributing to the change and feeding your family the highest quality poultry product available! Not only does your family benefit, so do the farmers and their families along with our communities and small businesses. 

If you have questions or need help finding a local pastured poultry farm in your area, I'm happy to assist!

- Dana

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