A few weeks ago, we discussed beef and what our options are. I’m cheating a bit this week because I wrote a post specifically about chicken back in 2009 and this one is going to be very similar with some updating. My philosophy on what is best hasn’t changed in five years (HAS IT REALLY BEEN FIVE YEARS???? OMG!!!) but reality has changed a bit.
I keep meaning to drive out to my favorite Amish farm and stock up on pastured chicken, but it just hasn’t happened in quite a while. So I continue to make do with what is easily accessible. Namely Costco.
OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: I am by no means an expert on, well, anything, so of course you should do your own research and come to your own conclusions.
The conventional chicken in the grocery store is the product of chickens raised in crowded feedlots and treated with antibiotics to keep disease to a minimum. People who have visited such establishments report that animals are packed in cages, living in their own feces, and the stench is foul. To add insult to injury (or the other way around, rather) their beaks are usually clipped when they are chicks so they don’t peck one another.
For the record, I’m not as concerned with the quality of life of the animals I eat as I am with the quality of their meat, but you have to admit there is something sad, and decidedly unnatural, about seeing those trucks full of chickens, packed like sardines, riding down the highway on their way to meet their maker (or their consumer.)
As it turns out, as with everything else, the subject of what chicken to buy is more complicated than it ought to be.
Chicken: What to Buy
The most natural, healthy chicken you can buy is from chickens raised on pasture with plenty of room to roam. Of course if they are fresh and local, that’s even better.
Pastured chickens eat a diet of grain along with the insects, grub and worms they peck from the grass. This is important because it’s the grass that contains the important omega-3s, beta-carotene, and CLA that make chicken a nutritious source of protein. They also get more exercise than chickens that are kept in confinement, so their meat is leaner and more tasty.
Also, it is important to note that a pastured chicken cooks differently than its conventional counterpart.
So there’s a learning curve there as well.
You can find farmers who sell direct on EatWild.com. The best case scenario is to buy in bulk; you can usually get a discount for purchasing that way, and chickens are only harvested in the summer months so it’s a good idea to stock up for the winter when they’re available.
Deciphering the Grocery Labels
Of course we don’t all live within driving distance of a farm that raises chickens sustainably on pasture. Your next best bet is to seek out a farmer’s market. If those options are cost prohibitive or inconvenient, you’ll probably be purchasing your chicken at the grocery store.
The labels at the grocery store are confounding at best.
You will often see chicken meat in the grocery store labeled “all natural.” This label is ambiguous and completely worthless. The following excerpt is from What To Eat* by Marion Nestle:
The USDA permits the producers of conventionally raised animals and birds to label their meat as “natural” as long as they define the term truthfully. The statement “no added hormones” on packages of “natural” chicken is a good example of how this system works. This statement is truthful, but so what? Hormones are never used in raising chickens (this is like saying vegetable oils have “no cholesterol”). “No added hormones” on beef, however, does mean something.
So yeah, “all natural” chicken meat is fine and good. But what that label doesn’t tell you is anything about what the chickens were fed, the conditions in which they were raised, and if they were given antibiotics. In other words, “all natural” on a chicken label means pretty much nothing. In fact, the “all natural” label on ANYTHING means next to nothing. Arsenic is natural, but it’ll kill ya.
Another label you often see on poultry is “free range.” This excerpt is from Nina Planck’s Real Food*:
Free-range poultry and eggs says nothing about grass. It means the birds aren’t in cages, but they may be in barns or on bare dirt. Grass is the key source of beta-carotene, CLA, and omega-3 fats in pastured poultry and eggs.
Likewise, the term “vegetarian feed” is also deceptive. Also from Real Food*:
On eggs or poultry, the label vegetarian feed is misleading. It means the chickens were not fed other ground-up chickens — and that’s good. But chickens are not natural vegetarians. What it does mean is that the birds never went outside; if they had, they might have eaten a grub or two.
For a definition of “organic” meat, I once again refer to Marion Nestle’s What To Eat*:
Organic producers cannot feed parts of any other animal to their cattle or chickens (“no animal by-products or animal cannibalism”). They must never use drugs to make the animals grow faster (“no antibiotics, no hormones”). They must allow their livestock to have fresh air, sunlight, freedom of movement, and access to pasture (“grass fed”). They also must use 100 percent organic grain as feed — grain grown without the use of pesticides or artificial fertilizers (therefore more expensive). And — the most critical difference — their adherence to these practices must be verified by inspectors who are certified by state or federally accredited agencies.
This is the label you want to see. A pastured chicken is not just given “access to pasture” — which is misleading because oftentimes chickens with access to pasture don’t take advantage of the open door one hour a day because they’re afraid of the unknown.
Rather, a pastured chicken is raised primarily on pasture. Ideally, the farmer will have a mobile chicken coop that he moves about on his property so they can have roam on fresh grass all the time. Along with the fresh green grass, they will be eating grubs and insects that also create a healthier chicken.
What I Buy
When I’m buying from a local farm, I don’t worry so much about the Certified Organic label because I can talk to the farmer and hear first-hand what he feeds his chickens and how they’re raised. I can see them happily pecking at the grass when I visit and it makes me so happy!
When I can’t get to the farm or farmer’s market (and I will admit, it’s been while for both!!) I usually buy the Coleman organic chickens at Costco. I realize they likely never saw a blade of grass or a bug in their miserable lives, but at least I know that with the Certified Organic seal, they didn’t eat animal byproducts or receive antibiotics or graze on grass treated with pesticides. I’m not convinced it’s really worth it, but it makes me feel better. Ha!
If you are still unsure if it’s worth paying twice as much for organic or pastured meat, that’s understandable. Everyone has to weigh the pros and cons and make the decision that’s best for their family.
Good: Free range or cage free, although I’m not entirely convinced that these are much better than conventional, and they cost a lot more, so… do your research and come to your own conclusions.
Better: Organic chicken from a conventional store.
BEST: Pastured chicken fresh from the farm. Can’t beat it. If the farm isn’t certified organic, make sure to inquire about feeding practices and living conditions to be sure you’re getting what you want.