Chicken Labeling: Prepare to be Surprised

If you’ve ever stood in the supermarket wondering if paying more for chicken that is free-range, antibiotic-free, no hormones added, farm-raised, natural, and organic, makes you a better person, you are not alone. 

Recently, as I was doubting myself on my chicken choices I decided to get to the bottom of what all of this really means. It’s not at all what I thought.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a cabinet-level agency that oversees the regulation of food-grade chicken and is responsible for the claims on packaging and labels. And despite all of the hype and fluff, there is only one label (“organic”) that guarantees specific standards and for which you might consider paying more. 

Briefly here is what all of it means–or doesn’t mean–according to the USDA.

Chicken and Antibiotics

Free-Range. There is no specific definition for free-range. For sure it does not mean  “running free to forage for grubs and grain on acres of rolling green pastureland.” The USDA generally allows this term if chickens have access to the outdoors for “at least part of the day,” which could mean a matter of a few minutes, whether that chicken chooses to go outdoors or not. A single open door at one end of a huge chicken warehouse meets this definition of free-range. Even so, fewer than 1 percent of chickens nationwide are raised as “free range.” 

Cage-Free. This means not housed in cages. It does not mean roaming happily in large open areas. Cage-free can mean crammed together in an indoor henhouse and given very little room to breath or be their chicken selves.

Natural. Under USDA regulations, a “natural” product has no artificial ingredients or chemical preservatives. Most ready-to-cook chicken can be labeled “natural,” if processors choose to do so. 

No hormones added. This label is meaningless because federal regulations prohibit use of hormones in chicken. Period. Any cut or brand of chicken can be labeled “raised without hormones.” However, if the processor chooses to say that on the label, it must also clearly state that no hormones are used in the production of any poultry allowed for consumption in the U.S.

Antibiotic-free or Raised without Antibiotics. This means that the flock was raised without the use of products classified as antibiotics for animal health maintenance, disease prevention or treatment of disease. But why mention this on the label? All processed chickens in the US must be “antibiotic-free” in the sense that no antibiotic residues are allowed to be present in the meat.

Made in the USA. Nearly all chickens and chicken products sold in the US come from chickens hatched, raised and processed in the US. The only exception is a small amount imported from Canada, which has food safety and quality standards equal to our own.

Organic. The USDA has a very specific rule to define “organic” production and prohibits the use of the term “organic” on packaging of any food product not produced in accordance with its rule. Organic chicken means that 100 percent of the chicken’s feed was grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides and other genetically-modified organisms for at least three years. According to USDA, the organic label does not indicate that the product has safety, quality or nutritional attributes that are any higher than conventionally raised chicken. 


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11 replies
  1. Kathy says:

    Thank you! Now I can share this with my friends and family who have joined the organic band wagon, and spend way more on their grocery bill (that they cannot afford) and almost see it as fashionable as they buy into the media hype.. Their children as well as themselves still catch the round of viruses and colds and flu quite a lot during the winter seasons, being in school etc. Where as I don’t buy organic, eat healthy regular grown vegetables, fruit, chicken, meat etc. And I work in a nursing home taking care of elderly and often sick patients and I have not had the flu in over 20 years , common cold I have not had in over 5 years and I save lots of money sticking to ordinary food, remembering how our grandparents generation and before managed just fine without organic.!! I do so enjoy your information.

  2. Nancy Azzolini says:

    Made in the USA is something that has to be considered, as we are now sending chicken to China for processing. I am very surprised /disappointed that this wasn’t mentioned in the article m

  3. Gehugh says:

    Know your farmer, know your grocer and know your restaurateur. If you can’t trust any of them, grow your own. As for products you buy at fast food restaurants…you get what you pay for!

  4. Danielle says:

    I buy organic chicken too, both to avoid gmo corn and soy ( major igredients in chicken feed), and to avoid contributing to all the roundup and other toxins used to grow them. But we eat very little chicken. I would point out though that since antibiotic use in animal husbandry is completely out of control and a leading cause of drug-resistant bacterial resistance, it is worth it to buy chicken raised without. If their living conditions are wretched enough to require constant antibiotic use, I will pass on eating their meat.

  5. Shari Graham says:

    Yes, I am willing to pay more for my organic chicken (and beef) because you are not just putting the chicken product in your body, you are also consuming all that the chicken ingested. If the chicken is eating GMO foods then so am I and I am not willing to do that.

  6. Rock says:

    “Made in the USA.
    Nearly all chickens and chicken products sold in the US come from
    chickens hatched, raised and processed in the US. The only exception is a
    small amount imported from Canada, which has food safety and quality
    standards equal to our own.”

    This soon (if not already) will not be true when they start major chicken processing in China. Will you update this when that happens? What should we be looking for then? What about chicken used in restaurants?

  7. kelly says:

    I would like to see a follow-up post regarding injecting chicken and other meats with “solution” and if it is worth it to look for meat that “has no solution added”

  8. Linnea Priest says:

    Our local co-op checks out the sources of the products that it sells, so I feel comfortable buying their locally-sourced eggs and chicken, even if they aren’t organic. They are at least ethical and the animals are treated humanely.

  9. Sarah Hamaker says:

    I’m not as concerned about organic or other labels on chicken, however–and this is a huge however–I am concerned with how chickens are processed, namely how plants use chemicals to ensure a safe food supply so they can ram more chickens through at a time. My advice is to find local farms and order your meat from there. Yes, it costs a bit more but knowing that the chicken in my freezer has not be sprayed with massive chemicals, washed and processed is worth it. Besides, there’s much less worry over any potential recalls.


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