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Chicken is the most consumed meat in the world, accounting for about 118 million tons worldwide and about 100 pounds per person per year in the United States. That’s a lot of thighs, breasts, wings and drumsticks. With all this poultry comes a dizzying array of labels intended to inform the consumer what kind of bird they are buying and how it was raised. You’ve probably seen at least half a dozen of them in 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 say and which ones to look for, you are not alone.
With ever-changing USDA regulations and the nitty-gritty footwork of poultry farmers and food marketing firms, chicken labels are many and also quite confusing. Here, I’ll break down the most common chicken labels so you can shop smarter, separate the important classifications from the marketing nonsense, and get the best chicken at the best price.
First, it is important to know that every label for a package of chicken must be submitted and approved by the United States Department of Agriculture. As you already know, millions of dollars are spent each year lobbying for softer and in some cases stricter labeling on behalf of large chicken producers. All this to say: these labels should be taken with some degree of skepticism.
This USDA mark is not usually advertised as loudly as other labels, but it is on every package for both whole chickens and parts. After inspection, the chicken is graded A, B or C by the Agricultural Marketing Service, the USDA arm that inspects poultry and other agricultural products. The poultry grade refers to the overall quality of the bird, including the fullness and roundness of the meat, the consistency of the skin, and the cleanliness of the bird as a whole (presence of feathers, discoloration, or skin tears), with grade A being the best. Here’s a more complete breakdown from the USDA of what each chicken grade means.
It’s good to look out for the “organic” label, but remember that it only means the chickens were fed a certified organic diet, and often — but not always — the farming practices used in feeding the birds. better. Organic chicken is always free-range (the bird at least has access to the outdoors some of them part of the day) and conventional antibiotics were not given.
Furthermore, the organic chicken label does not convey any signal about the quality of life of a chicken or the humane practices during its life, transport or slaughter. In many cases, organic chickens may still experience some of the most infamous practices of factory farming.
Chicken without antibiotics
The use – or lack thereof – of antibiotics is one of the more controversial labels given to chicken. Most 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 prophylactic antibiotics, which many consider harmful, but it does not mean that they were not given antibiotics when they got sick.
While the overuse of antibiotics can be a problem, some in the industry argue that they have been overcorrected by pressure from animal rights groups to remove antibiotics largely from poultry because, when used, they are a key tool in keeping large populations of birds healthy. correct. This adjustment is mainly due to past chronic overuse of prophylactic antibiotics. These days, all antibiotics should be considered necessary and should be prescribed by a veterinarian before administration.
No added hormones or steroids
Because FDA law prohibits any use of additional steroids or hormones, this label means little. If a poultry brand touts this as its big claim, there’s a good chance it’s distracting you. not there.
All natural chicken
It’s a marketing term and doesn’t mean anything. There is no requirement for chicken to be labeled as all-natural; If you see it, you should probably think it’s something else.
Labels related to the treatment of chickens
Animal Welfare Certified Chicken
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, this is the harshest label given to birds based on common humane practices. AWA chickens are inspected annually to ensure the birds have adequate indoor and outdoor space, breed health requirements, natural light and a maximum four-hour transport period.
Certified Humane Chicken
This label also represents a significant improvement over traditional standards. When accompanied by the words “free-range” or “pasture-raised,” it means open air for ruminants, pigs, and poultry. This label states that chickens are raised with most, but not all, of the same requirements as the AWA, including no natural light requirements and slightly less stringent requirements for breed health. Compliance audits for this label are also required once a year.
Animal Welfare Certified Chicken
This six-level rating program for animals raised for meat and eggs is a bit more complicated. According to the ASPCA, each successive level represents progressively higher well-being and covers all the requirements of those below it. Caging, hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics are prohibited at all levels, standards cover transport and slaughter, and compliance is verified through audits every 15 months.
Because there is no legal definition of the term, “pasture-raised” is difficult to verify, although it implies that the birds spend significant time outdoors and on pasture. The USDA requires chicken labels to be “accurate,” but without formal regulations, there’s a lot of wiggle room.
Free range chicken
This is another label you see on egg cartons and chicken packages that fools you once you enter the criteria. “Free range” indicates that chickens have access to the outdoors, but there are few requirements for how much or how big that outdoor space is. In many cases, poultry houses are built so that the chickens do not even use the open space.
Cage free chicken
This label, which is mostly nonsense, can be distracting if you see the chicken box front and center. Because no broiler chickens can be raised in a cage and should instead be kept in large houses. This distinction is important when talking about eggs, because laying hens can be kept in cages and are often raised.
For more information on labels related to the humane treatment of chicken, see this chicken labeling chart from the ASPCA.
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or health goals.