Choosing Chicken: The Label Game

What’s with all these labels?  Organic, free range, cage free—find out how to buy the best chicken and why it matters.

I’m looking for a real chicken.  It used to be a simple affair—picking out a chicken at the market to bring home for dinner.  Now I am confronted with a raft of labels to choose from, but what do they mean—and why are there so many?  Isn’t one label enough: The Good Clean Healthy Environmentally Friendly Chicken You Want To Eat.

We all know what it is, right?  Somewhere in our minds we carry an image of what a proper chicken should be.

When I imagine her, she is plump and healthy, pecking with her fellow hens in a grassy field.  After being fed a healthy grain based feed from the farmer she bathes herself in dust before hunting for insects and worms and foraging for seeds and grasses.

Looking at the average packaged chicken at the grocery store, I often find the picture of a happy looking hen out on a field, perhaps with that red barn behind her—an evocative symbol of farm life in the countryside.  It is more likely, however, that she is one of the nine billion birds raised in industrialized factory farms every year.
In search of my perfect chicken, I researched factory farming and other alternative methods of raising chickens to figure out if any of the labels on offer at the grocery store represent the life I had imagined for my ideal chicken.

Factory farming—a far cry from the red barn

Contrary to what we imagine a chicken coop to be—small huts with hens bustling inside their nests with open access to the outdoors—factory farmed poultry are often kept exclusively indoors in what are called “grower” or “grow-out” houses.

The broiler industry has evolved from millions of small backyard flocks of dual-purpose (eggs and meat) chickens in the early 1900’s to less than 50 highly specialized, vertically integrated agribusiness firms.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service

Grower houses are confined warehouse-like buildings which raise chickens under artificial lighting and ventilation in lieu of sunshine and open spaces.  These houses can confine up to 20,000 chickens—with each chicken provided a living space barely larger than the area of a single sheet of letter-sized paper.

In such close quarters, fowl are under a great deal of stress which can lead to aggressive behaviors.  Factory farmers deal with this by practicing precautionary beak trimming in order to prevent serious injuries.   Beak trimming is a painful process for the bird—as the heated blade, shears, or high-voltage electrical current used to cut the beak also sever sensitive nerves.

Overcrowding a grower house makes it a challenge to keep a clean environment. As waste builds up and trampled bird carcasses decompose, disease can easily spread from bird to bird.  Instead of changing the living conditions that promote disease, factory farmers will often turn to antibiotics—regularly administered to chickens in their feed—in order to combat the effects of dense, unsanitary living conditions.

What’s for dinner?

When imagining my luscious bird strutting around in a field, I did not imagine her partaking in cannibalism and quaffing a daily dose of antibiotics—nor did I see her dosing up on arsenic, caffeine, pain killers or antidepressants—all of which have been found in poultry feed in recent studies.

The first study—conducted by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in conjunction with Arizona State University—tested feathers for traces of antibiotics. The study tested feathers because, much like our fingernails, they have the ability to retain residues of chemicals a bird has been exposed to during its life.

What they found in those feathers was a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones, which have been legally banned in poultry feed in the US.  The FDA’s decision to ban them came from an increasing rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which had been able to mutate due to overexposure to the fluoroquinolones. Antibiotic resistant bacteria present a threat to human health, and so the class of antibiotics was banned.

Antibiotics, however, were the most mundane findings the test discovered. Researchers found that the chickens in the study had been fed the active ingredients found in Prozac, Tylenol and Benadryl.  These additives are used in factory farming to ease the birds’ anxiety, which undoubtedly stems from the stress of their living conditions.

Caffeine and green tea powder were also found to be mixed into poultry feed in order to keep the chickens awake so that they would continue to feed for a longer period of time.

If anxiety medications and banned antibiotics weren’t impressive enough, how about poison?  A companion study, which also tested feather meal, uncovered traces of arsenic.  This lethal poison is used in small amounts in both poultry and hog feed to reduce infection and produce meat that has a more pinkish tint to it.

As both studies only tested the birds’ feathers, the amounts of these chemicals in the meat itself is presently unknown.

The cannibalistic habits of a factory farmed chicken come from the ingestion of meat and bone meal, another common ingredient in animal feed.  The raw materials that make up this rendered meat meal are the by-products of our food industry—the unmarketable animal parts of farm animals—which includes poultry.

Lastly, I found the absolutely inedible: plastic pellets.   Poultry feed has been known to contain plastic pellets which act as a cheap source of roughage that some factory farmers use in the place of fibrous materials.

Too heavy

Back in the 1920’s, commercially bred chickens reached a weight of 2.2 lb (1 kg) in 16 weeks.  Today’s chickens, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has found, can reach 5 lb (2.27 kg) in just 7 weeks.

This rapid weight gain causes numerous problems for birds, including muscular, skeletal, and immune deficiencies.  Broiler chickens just 5 weeks old are reported to spend 76-86% of their time lying down, which has been attributed to foot and leg injuries incurred from weight gain.

In both turkeys and chickens, rapid weight gain has been associated with sudden death syndrome, in which the birds die from heart failure or bleeding of the kidneys.

Starvation—the hottest new diet

Breeding birds, which lay fertile eggs to produce birds used for meat, naturally undergo a process of molting to renew their feathers.  During this time, a breeder hen will decrease or cease laying eggs for several months, giving the hen a break from reproduction to store up nutrient reserves for her health.

In order to speed up the molting process so that the hen will return to egg laying, factory farmers have been known to induce stress through withholding food.  This starvation usually lasts 10-14 days, in which the hen can lose up to 25% of her body weight.

Someone open a window in here

Another side effect of keeping birds in such congested conditions is ammonia buildup from their wastes.  In many grower houses, the ammonia levels can be so high that the birds suffer from constant respiratory illness. They also develop blisters and skin infections from contact with such concentrated fumes.

Humane Methods of Slaughter Act

In 1958, Congress passed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) which enforced a standard that animals raised for food production must be “rendered insensible to pain” before slaughter.  Although the HMSA garnered support from the public, the meat industry successfully managed to exempt poultry from the act.  This means that currently, there are no federal laws regulating the slaughter of nine billion fowl.

It’s clear that factory farmed chicken is not the “chicken on the farm” that I imagined.  But what about the other methods of raising poultry?

Free range, organic, and cage free

Free range is really misleading as a label.  Free indicates, well, freedom.  And if a chicken had freedom, she would spend her day outdoors hunting and foraging with her flock, returning to her clean, spacious shelter to roost at night.  Range is another word that provokes the image of wide open spaces and freedom of movement.  However, this is not the life that most free range birds enjoy.

The free range label requires that birds have “access to the outdoors.” However, what this outdoor area should look like (i.e. if it has a dirt floor, green grass or cement), how long birds have access to the outdoors, and if all birds can be outside at once, comfortably, remains undefined. There is no enforced guarantee that these birds go outside at all—a chicken that has only gone outside a few times, or perhaps never, may be certified free range as long as she was allowed access to the outdoors.

The certified organic label does little more to define “access to the outdoors” than does the free range label.  Organic definitely ensures that your chicken has not been fed antibiotics or feed that was cultivated with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  However, a study conducted on organic egg production by the Cornucopia Institute found that most organic industrial egg producers confined tens of thousands of birds indoors, leaving them only a small concrete or wooden porch as “outdoor access.”

The cage free label generally applies to egg laying hens.  The label requires that birds never be confined in cages.  Unlike the label ‘free range’, cage free is literal—banning the use of individual cages, and addressing nothing else.

Under the cage free label, a hen can still spend her entire life in an overcrowded grower house with conditions that match factory farms, so long as she was not kept in a cage. The label does not address the issue of feeding hens antibiotics to combat the effects of their overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.  When you see the cage free label, its scope is limited to the literal interpretation.

So, while organic and free range are a step in the right direction—and it’s definitely better to shun barbaric battery cages—these labels don’t guarantee that I’m getting the chicken that I’m thinking about; the one on a farm, pecking outdoors in the grass with other chicken.

Pasture raised

Typically, pasture based farming employs the use of chicken hutches or hoop houses, which allow chickens open access to pastures during the day, and provide a safe, spacious roost at night.  This method of raising birds is complimentary to their natural inclinations—birds are allowed to express their natural instincts to explore their surroundings and ingest a more natural, omnivorous diet by foraging for grass, seeds, insects, and larva—in addition to their grain and protein feed.

At Organic Pastures, hutches can house around 65 broiler chickens—rather than the 20,000 or more found in factory farm grower houses.  Marin Sun Farms has been able to outfit these mobile hutches specifically for each species—chickens, ducks, turkeys and other game birds—to live comfortably. The size of the flock and the absence of confinement allow the birds to socialize without becoming aggressive, as they do in dense and unnatural living conditions.

In nature, every animal performs many kinds of work within the ecosystem, just by following their natural habits. Birds, for instance, can often be found following herds of grazing animals.  They eat the fly larvae found in the fresh manure of the grazers, spreading it out in the process—which acts to both keep the pesky fly population down as well as spread manure evenly over the field.

On farms like Organic Pastures, or those who supply Marin Sun Farms, the birds are integrated into the farm’s ecosystem.  They have designed the hutches to follow a herd of cattle as they graze through different pastures.  The birds sort through cow dung to eat fly larva, which nourishes them and decreases the livestock fly population.  While roaming around, the birds also spread their own natural fertilizer, increasing the nutrients in the soil and grass, which eventually will be eaten by the cattle.

This method of farming multiple animal species on a pasture allows them to fulfill their natural role in a balanced ecosystem—supporting each other’s growth and the health of the environment around them. It also minimizes the need for external fertilizers or pesticides.

In a pasture based system, birds are not forced to exceed their natural limitations.

Looking beyond the label

Organic Pastures is a certified organic farm, whereas David Evan’s farm and those who sell their products at Marin Sun Farms, are not.  However, both employ the highest standards of animal welfare and land management.

It is important to note that you cannot always rely on labeling to know how your meat was produced as many farmers who employ humane, organic practices, like David Evans, choose not to get certified. Conversely, not all certified organic producers employ the same humane and ecologically integrated practices as Organic Pastures—instead only allowing ‘outside access’ to a small concrete porch to meet the minimum requirement for certification. 

It is therefore up to the customer to do some research on the products offered at their local store.  Many small scale producers are readily available to answer any questions that a customer may have.  Transparency is a key indicator that the farm you are buying from employs animal raising and slaughtering methods that are nothing to hide from their customers.  The research is worth the effort to find a chicken you can feel good about eating.

photo credit: Marin Sun Farms