Food labels have only gotten more confusing and euphemistic in order to market their product, and we’re looking at you, poultry industry. Here is Land & Feast’s guide to understanding what chicken labels mean and what to trust at the store.
As you might be able to tell, food labels on packaged chicken have notoriously used confusing phrasing and euphemisms to enhance the power of marketing for their product– the chicken. Consumers can only benefit from learning what these labels mean so they can figure out what to buy and what to stay away from. Some labels have strict requirements, while the regulations for others are more loose, and some have no requirements for use at all. The labels on the product also have to do with the relationship between farmers and producers. While farmers may or may not be setting and following standards, the marketing for their product will reflect positively all the same.
Some labels on chicken packaging indicate to the consumer the quality of the chicken, while others show the level of animal welfare habits. And just to make it complicated– some mean nothing at all. Here we have broken down many common meat and poultry labels. While this is not an exhaustive list, it covers much of what you might see in a grocery store or supermarket and will help you to look out for what is best for you and your family.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets some standards for these terms, though ‘free-range’ is one that remains relatively loose. Farmers are required to provide full outdoor space for over 51% of the animals’ lives. Whether that space is regularly used and/or if the chickens are confined when they are fed is a different story. It is common for packaged chicken to be labeled as ‘free-range’ without specifications on how much space and for how long, so for a consumer, this label is not necessarily the epitome of ethical animal treatment.
This label is an interesting one because all broiler chickens, chickens that are raised for meat, are not raised in cages. They usually are raised in large sheds or barns– albeit with very little standing room– but not cages. The term ‘cage-free’ really only pertains to hens for laying eggs, in which case this label could be important to note.
The USDA Organic label has more specific regulations and can tell a consumer more about the chicken. Some of the requirements include raising the chickens on an organic feed, with no genetically engineered ingredients or animal byproducts. It also means they must be raised on certified organic land, have access to the outdoors year-round, and treated without synthetic hormones or antibiotics. These requirements include more animal welfare standards than others, so this label holds weight for a consumer concerned about animal welfare and the safe and healthy option for their family.
The next three terms are labels that are commonly used that generally mean nothing. ‘Farm-raised’ or ‘Barn-raised’ cannot indicate anything because of course all broilers are going to be raised on a farm. That farm will always have a barn. And the barn is for chickens. So this label cannot inform the consumer about any health and safety standards held for the chickens raised there or the people buying the meat.
While the terms ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ can be used to indicate that there are no added preservatives or colors, there is no regulatory definition for this. Often, if ‘natural’ is the only label a company can put on their chicken packaging, that should be a red flag to the shopper.
No Added Hormones
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits poultry producers in the U.S. to use any kind of added steroids or hormones. If a label says there are no added hormones to the packaged chicken, well, that should be a given. Chicken packages that also have organic or pasture-raised labels will also not have any hormones added at any point. This means that you have not found a rare gem of a company that doesn’t use steroids– no company can use them.
Animal Welfare Approved
This label is specifically in regards to the treatment of broilers as they are raised for meat. The Animal Welfare Approved certification is overseen by A Greener World, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting independent farms and promoting education and sustainability. This certification can only be awarded to independent farms, with these farms promising continual access to indoor and outdoor spaces, breeding regulations, natural light, and many other high welfare standards for birds on the farm and in transport. This label shows a commitment to caring for the chickens at a higher quality level than any other certification.
This certification also holds many of the same standards as AWA. Chickens still must have access to nutritious food and be treated with considerate and knowledgeable care. Although these standards are similar, Certified Humane does not prohibit feedlots, nor do they require full access to outdoors.
So, what kind of chicken should you buy then? The best way to go is local, independent farms. The standards for safety, hygiene, and animal welfare are generally significantly better than what factory farms can offer. While many of these labels can do some good, local and organic chicken could give you the best glimpse into ethical practices and sustainability initiatives that many farmers commit to. To foster connection between the earth and people, Land & Feast’s whole organic chicken is available for purchase if you follow the link here.