Everything you need to know to buy healthy, sustainable, humanely raised poultry.
On this page:
- Know the issues
- Understanding labels
- The importance of free range and pasture raised
- Checklist for buying healthy humane poultry
- Where to buy poultry
When we think of poultry, we most often think of chickens, but farmers also raise and slaughter turkeys, ducks, quail and geese. All of these animals can be found languishing in truly horrible factory farm conditions, and to find them otherwise is the exception. If you haven’t vetted it, you can assume your poultry lived indoors in crowded, unsanitary and inhumane conditions.
Since that is the norm for poultry, birds that enjoy better conditions will cost more to raise, and therefore the price will be higher. Sometimes substantially higher. If a producer is going to charge you more, they will need to justify it, to set themselves apart in your eyes so you know it’s a better product. That leads to all kinds of labels, certifications and claims that sound healthy, humane and ecologically responsible. You may be surprised to learn that many labels have no verifiable meaning, or mean something different than you might expect. After all, how many of you have actually read the standards and regulations that govern labels, such as organic certification for animals?
You want birds that were raised humanely and you want birds that ate healthful, natural foods to ensure the best quality meat. But don’t be fooled by nice-sounding labels, even ones like “organic.” When it comes to buying poultry, a little homework will ensure your good intentions and extra expenditure don’t go to waste.
What to avoid when buying poultry: know the issues
We’ve been farming birds for centuries, and we know what they need to live a healthy life. On the surface it may seem that health concerns and animal welfare concerns are two different subjects, but they are not. Animals that are treated well, and live according to what is natural for them, are healthier and produce an end product that is better for you.
Is it humane?
Here are the animal welfare issues you need to be aware of when buying poultry.
Indoors or outdoors
It's great for chickens to have a clean, safe indoor space to spend the night, but during the daytime, chickens should be able to go outside. What does "outside" mean? Well, that's been debated down to the square inch. Many labels have an exact, technical description of what "outside" is, and it may bear no resemblance to what outside means to you.
So let's be clear: outside is earth, not a concrete or wooden porch. Outside can be a fenced field that is large enough for all the chickens to be outdoors at once, roaming around comfortably and uncrowded. Outside can be open pasture. What we are looking for is honest to goodness outdoors, not some technical version of it. Many poultry producers would like to play a game with you. That game is called, "What Can I Get Away With?" Refuse to play this game. They may "technically" give their birds outdoor access, but you need to find out exactly what this is and make sure it is real.
Most poultry birds never see the outdoors. They are kept by the tens of thousands standing wing to wing inside giant warehouse-sized grow houses. There are often dead birds left laying on the floor, and the body heat from all those birds plus the stench of their combined waste products produce strong chemical fumes which cause respiratory illness, burn the birds' eyes and leave ammonia burns on their skin.
Refuse meat from poultry birds who live their lives exclusively indoors.
When it comes to ducks, there is an additional issue: water. Ducks are typically raised by the tens of thousands crowded in enormous dark sheds with concrete or wire floors. Have you ever watched ducks in nature? They are water birds. It is completely unnatural and inhumane to keep ducks indoors their whole lives, or even outdoors without sufficient water for swimming and bathing.
A duck that never swam is not a duck worth eating.
Perches, dust bathing and scratching pads
Chickens and turkeys who go outside to a field or pasture don't need scratching pads or special dust bathing gear. Nature provides, and birds know how to take care of themselves if they are allowed a genuine outdoor area. You only hear about dust bathing and scratching pads for chickens who live exclusively indoors, where they would otherwise have no ability to do what chickens need to do to take care of themselves.
Turkeys can have an indoor space to rest at night, but they are also well suited to living without an indoor space, so long as the terrain is such that they can find bushes, thickets and hedgerows in which to shelter.
Indoors, both chickens and turkeys like to roost at night on perches. If they don't have perches, their feet could get damaged. Ideally, they like plenty of perches at differing heights. This mimics what they would do in nature, which is roost in low tree branches.
Which is a vague, less horrible way of saying cutting body parts off without anesthetic. Birds are very competitive animals—hence the term "pecking order." If you cram them together and don't provide enough space, perches, water feeders or access to food—the things that birds use every day—they are going to get stressed and aggressive. They will peck and bully each other to death. Ducks and geese can't peck, per se, but they do use their bills to rip out feathers. It can get really ugly, just as it would if you put ten thousand people shoulder to shoulder in a shed all their lives. We are not so different!
Rather than giving birds adequate space and furnishings, industrial poultry operators simply cut off their beaks, and sometimes also their toes, which is very painful for birds. We haven't said much about ducks and geese, but rest assured that, when raised in factory farms, they have their bills sliced off when they are just little ducklings and goslings. Similarly, quail are also debeaked or undergo beak trimming. No one gets out of it.
Aggressive breeding tactics are used to achieve two basic outcomes.
Fast growth: Poultry are bred to grow faster so they can be slaughtered and sent to market sooner. What's wrong with that? Chicken and turkeys are putting weight on so fast that their bones and internal organs can't keep up. This results in broken bones, painful foot, leg and skeletal deformities, and birds that can't support their body weight standing. Even if you give this unnatural breed of bird fantastic outside access, they are not likely to use it since they spend most of their time lying down because they can't walk or stand properly.
Bigger breasts: We have a clear preference for white breast meat in the West and breast meat sells for a higher price. Industrial poultry farmers often breed chickens and turkeys with unnaturally large breasts in proportion to the rest of their bodies. This results in birds that can't stand or walk properly. Many industrially raised turkeys are so physically out of balance that they can't even mate naturally and have to be artificially inseminated in order to breed.
Another issue with breeding, is not just which breed is used, but the actual process of hatching eggs for the meat industry. Most farmers do not breed their own pullets, and they buy them from giant industrial chicken breeders, who practice forced molting through starvation, beak trimming and rough handling of newly hatched birds.
Is it healthy?
Another reason why it's imperative for you to know how your poultry is raised is for your health. Poultry birds are kept in such abysmal living conditions that they end up getting all kinds of infections. It is normal practice to combat this by giving them a constant, low dose of antibiotics in their feed.
But it doesn't stop there. Chickens are also propped up with antidepressants (to ease their anxiety from living in terrible conditions), caffeine (to make them stay up longer and eat more), and other feed additives, such as non-lethal doses of arsenic, which results in a more appealingly pink meat.
Healthy meat can only come from healthy poultry birds. Torture, crowded and unsanitary living conditions, as well as the ingestion of all kinds of drugs and additives do not result in the kind of meat you are looking for, even if it is cheaper or more readily available. You want to eat meat from healthy birds who live in clean, uncrowded conditions and eat nutritious, species-appropriate food.
The problem with labels
Given that there are so many human health and animal welfare issues with modern, industrialized poultry farming, it would seem that labels would bring more clarity to the situation.
However, the proliferation of labels, both third party certified or not, has done much to confuse and mislead people. Frankly put, there is a lot of money on the table and plenty of poultry operators working in the factory farm model who are tripping over themselves to tweak their industrial model just enough to qualify for a certification.
Take certified organic chicken for example. The regulations forbid the use of antibiotics and require that the feed is organic. This addresses concerns about drugs, pesticides and herbicides. So far, so good. However, many mistakenly assume that certified organic chickens are raised humanely, and that is not always the case.
Organic regulations require that the birds have outdoor access, but do not specify what that means. Therefore, there are large industrial poultry producers that are certified organic and provide the birds with a concrete porch to meet the outdoor access requirement. The regulations also do not adequately cover the conditions of indoor housing.
Imagine tens of thousands of birds: chickens or turkeys or ducks—crammed indoors with only a small concrete or wooden porch as outside access. This is a common practice for industrial-scale organic poultry producers.
Most people don't look up the regulations (if any) that govern labeling, and therefore are not aware of what the label actually means. While there are some poultry producers who are certified organic and use the highest animal welfare practices, how can you tell the difference between their meat and the factory farm organic poultry producer when their products carry the same label?
Another example is the disparity between what certifiers consider humane. Some poultry that carry a Humane certification are actually from hens who live their whole lives indoors. Other organizations who give Humane label certifications require access to the outdoors to meet the high animal welfare standards that should be exemplified by the Humane label.
Some Humane certifiers allow beak trimming, but not debeaking, some do not allow any form of cutting a bird's beak. What is humane about cutting a bird's beak? Most people who seek out poultry with a Humane certification probably would not imagine that the bird had their beak or bill cut off days after hatching.
Different certifiers have different standards, sometimes very different. Again, you cannot tell simply by the label. One Humane label may be more humane than another.
When it comes to humanely raised animals, Animal Welfare Approved is the most rigorous widely available label we've found in the US. They not only cover how the animals are treated and their living conditions, but also address health concerns such as antibiotic use. It does not require organic feed, however, and so does not address pesticide and herbicide exposure.
What about Free Range?
Free range is a great idea, but like other labels, the requirements are written in such a way that much is left to a farmer's interpretation. On one free range farm, you may find birds out on pasture living a life in nature and fresh air. On another free range farm, you may see poultry packed in a huge grower house that never go outside, even though they are given access.
Why would birds not go outside, even when given access?
- If they have never been outside when they are young, they may not seek it out.
- If the outdoor area is too small, they may not venture away from their flock indoors to make use of it.
- If birds are bred aggressively and can't even walk because their growth has outpaced their bones and internal organs, they are not going to have much interest in going out.
Yet so long as they are given access to the outdoors for 51% of their lives, they can still be considered Free Range.
The Free Range label also does not address the many other health and welfare issues previously detailed, such as indoor living conditions or drug use.
Why is pasture raised so important for poultry?
Usually, pasture raised hens are birds that have mobile hutches and move from one pasture to another, following a herd of cows or other grazing farm animals. They forage for plants, insects and grubs and are an integrated part of a pasture-based farming system.
Since the chickens are living very close to natural lives, by default many of the animal welfare issues are rendered moot. Let's take a look at some examples.
- Mutilations: not necessary, since the birds have plenty of space. But even more than being unnecessary, mutilations are actually counterproductive, since birds living and foraging outdoors need their beaks and toes to survive and thrive. Pasture-based farmers have no incentive at all to cut parts off of their birds.
- Inhumane breeding: less likely. Birds who can't even stand up and have broken bones or skeletal problems do not survive on pasture.
- Cages: obviously not.
- Perches, dust bathing, scratching pads: not an issue. Why? Because birds with injured or deformed feet are not going to do well on pasture, so farmers have every incentive to give them what they need. Poultry who live outdoors have all they need to dust bathe and preen. And since they are out scratching all day while foraging, there is no issue about providing scratching pads.
- Outdoor space: there is no question here as to how many inches or feet of outdoor space is available per bird, whether it's dirt or concrete, etc. You don't have to be a detective to uncover whether this much-debated "outdoor space" is the genuine article or some industrial poultry producer pulling the eco-green wool over your eyes. Pasture is real.
Checklist for buying healthy, humanely raised poultry
Your local poultry farmer may carry no certification or labels of any kind, and yet he may be using the highest standard of animal welfare and feeding the birds high quality food. Another producer may be certified, yet be doing the very bare minimum to meet those requirements while raising poultry essentially in the industrial model. Labels are a start, but don't tell the whole story. That's why, no matter what the label says, you need to ask your poultry farmer these questions and decide for yourself if his practices meet your standards.
You can do this by phone, by email, by post, through the farmer's social media page, or in person if you visit his stand at the farmers market. If you do not get a clear, unambiguous response to every question, or if you don't get a response at all, don't buy the product. Many poultry farmers, even small ones, have a website or social media page where they give details about their practices. But rarely do they address every issue outlined here. Make sure you get clear answers to all your questions.
Many local farmers offer scheduled tours. Seeing a farm for yourself is the gold standard. There is much to be said about walking into a hen house. You'll either pass out from the fumes or it will be just fine. That gives you more valuable information than detailed ventilation schematics. You'll either see birds crowded together, or you'll see them running around doing normal bird activities with plenty of space.
When a farmer tells you he provides 1.8 square feet per chicken, what does that mean to you? When you see the birds' living conditions for yourself, you will not need a measuring tape to decide whether it's good enough. It's easy to see whether birds are living in clean, uncrowded environments. It's much harder for the average person to imagine the implications of X square inches vs Y square inches.
One of the basic requirements we are assuming for this checklist is that the birds have daily access to a genuine outdoor area: true free range or pasture. If your eggs come from birds that are confined indoors or have only bogus outdoor access, then there are a host of other issues and it all gets very technical. How many square inches per bird, can the birds stretch their wings, is there proper ventilation to avoid ammonia buildup etc. The bottom line is that a healthy outdoor life is an essential requirement.
Don't buy poultry unless the birds were raised in a healthy, spacious outdoor environment.
- Do you perform physical alterations, such as beak, bill or toe trimming? Do you buy from breeders who do?
- Do you confine birds to cages of any kind?
- Do your birds have daily access to the outdoors? If so, describe exactly what that outdoor area consists of (you can also ask for photos of the outdoor area).
- Do you ever withhold water or food from your birds, for example, for forced molting?
- Do you provide ample perches?
- What breeds do you raise? Do your breeding choices result in animals that grow too fast for their bones or internal organs, or breeding that impedes the animals ability to move and act naturally?
- How large is your flock?
- Do you breed your own birds? If not, where do you get your pullets?
- What do you feed your birds?
- What is your policy on antibiotic use?
- Does your feed include any drugs or additives?
- Is your feed organically grown?
- Does your feed include any animal products? If so, from which species?
- Do you force feed your birds? (this mainly applies to the production of foie gras
Where to buy humane, healthy poultry
Find a local poultry farmer who has answered all the questions on your checklist and meets your requirements. Here are some places to find high quality, local poultry:
- farmers market
- CSA (some ranchers who pasture raise animals offer CSA schemes for meat, poultry and eggs)
- small community grocer or butcher
- direct from local family farms (you can often do this online)
The likelihood that you are going to find poultry from a local family farmer that meets your standards at a supermarket are slim. Small producers don't do the kind of volume that supermarkets demand. However, sometimes you can find some decent mid-size producers at the supermarket. Do your research and get answers from the farmer before buying.
Don't buy from a faceless corporation. There should be a farmer or a farm family raising the birds, and they should be willing to tell you about how the animals were raised. Don't be fooled by large corporate brands that seem like there is a farmer or a family behind them. Buy from real farmers, preferably local ones.
It seems like a lot of work, but it's work you'll likely only have to do once. When you have a list of trusted brands and locations where they are available, you can rest easy knowing what you are buying.
Spread the word
If you've gone through the trouble to find trusted sources, why not help others out and share your information? Let your friends and family know, find forums online where you can post your findings, share your information with community groups, you can even post it on this website. Find a way to get the word out.
Having to investigate all our food sources is overwhelming and time consuming. If each of us shares what we find, it will make the process that much easier.
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