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 is going to make you healthier, wealthier, wise—or just a better person—you’re 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 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.

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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% 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 breathe or be their naturally-born 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 the 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.


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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 U.S. An exception is a small number imported from Canada, which has food safety and quality standards equal to the U.S.

Organic

The USDA has a very specific rule to define “organic” production and prohibits the use of the term “organic” on the packaging of any food product not produced in accordance with its rule.

Organic chicken means that 100% 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.

Question: Are you willing to pay more for chicken labeled “organic,” now that you know what it means? You can weigh in using the comments feature below. 


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Originally published in 2014, revised and updated 3-21-19 for clarity and to keep it current. mh 

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31 replies
  1. Its_Gwen
    Its_Gwen says:

    I will buy organic simply because I know the feed is not GMO. Best case scenario is locally raised chickens, but mostly we end up with Aldis because it’s budget friendly.

    Reply
  2. Shirley S
    Shirley S says:

    I commented yesterday on the horrible way animals are treated and how Walmart has been cited numerous times for cruelty to animals and Mary deleted my comment. I am disappointed that you wont show that side of Walmart, Mary-the side no one WANTS to see who is trying to save money. There is a HUGE cost to lots of people and animals and our environment in the name of low prices.

    Reply
    • DianaB
      DianaB says:

      Shirley, just to jump into the fray here, I have serious doubts that Walmart actually raises any of the beef (or any other meat) it sells, let alone has huge feed lots and slaughter facilities. These are all done by someone else, not the retailer. This is all done by someone after the rancher has raised the beef and then sold it for the season. There are many steps involved in this process, beginning with the rancher and ending with the consumer.

      Reply
      • Shirley S
        Shirley S says:

        HI Diana, Thanks for your input. I do think you are right, but they use places that have been cited for animal cruelty.

  3. Chris
    Chris says:

    I’m disappointed that you didn’t address the ‘Certified Humane’ label also on some packages. This will ensure that at least some of the basic natural activities of chickens are met (nesting box, access to outdoors, NO BATTERY CAGES, ability to scratch and dig for food outside, etc). Though it’s still not perfect in most cases, it’s a lot better than the cruel/harsh methods most chicken producers generally use, Often times Certified Humane chickens usually have organic treatment as well. The reason that it costs organic (or Certified Humane) famers more is that inspection is more involved, and that means more inspectors and more time. I think it should be included in the whole inspection process, and farmers not burdened with extra charges/fees.

    Reply
  4. sylvia
    sylvia says:

    I am against the proposed cutting up and packaging of our chicken in China(bird flu). My solution is to go local, if you can do so. Frozen chicken, cut-up chicken, pieces and parts are not acceptable. I am glad that you clearly explained the different labeling of chicken. If the countries corporations go to shipping our birds offshore for processing, this is one “chickie”( forgive, couldn’t resist) that can shop totally locally.

    Reply
  5. Lucy
    Lucy says:

    What I want to know is why they feel they must enhance the chicken these days with a 12% or 15% solution. I’m sure it’s to add flavor but I suspect from the ache in my hands after eating this chicken that there is MSG in the solution. It’s become very difficult to find chicken without these solutions added.

    Reply
    • javagrammy
      javagrammy says:

      It’s to make it weigh more so you pay more. The salt added at times causes the tissues to hold the fluid. Costco has reasonably priced organic meats, not a lot but it helps. If you aren’t buying organic chicken, it most likely has arsenic in the feed also.

      Reply
  6. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    I buy organic chicken when it’s on sale and only then. Did you know the USDA charges the producer/farmer a lot of $$$ for the privilege of using the word “organic”? There are many…if not most…smaller producers/farmers who cannot afford the extortion so they resort to “naturally raised, farm raised”, etc.
    Decades ago, hormones were added to chicken and a lot of us remember; perhaps that’s why it’s mentioned now.
    Antibiotic free may mean the flock was not given them but what about their feed? Often, feed has antibiotics included; it’s a fast, inexpensive way to get them into the animals while claiming the animals weren’t given them “the regular method”.
    Another thing…the USDA relies, heavily, on input, resources and money from corporations such as Monsanto, Archer Daniel Midlands, DuPont, etc. Additionally, most state ag universities have chairs that are paid for by those same corporations. The larger question is…do you trust those corporations? The Dir. of Monsanto press once said, “It’s not our job to ensure food safety; that’s the job of the USDA. It’s our job to make money.”

    Reply
  7. Janice
    Janice says:

    The easiest solution to this is to go to localharvest.org, and find someone raising chickens. They expect to get questions as to how they raise, feed, and care for their chickens. Many have you (or allow you) to come to their farm. Many process directly on their farm. Several farms have you “order” the number you want for a month, and they grow them specifically for you.

    Reply
  8. Ron 'n Loni Oliver
    Ron 'n Loni Oliver says:

    I want to know if the chicken was administered antibiotics, either through its feed every day or as an occasional treatment, because this adversely affects the health of the chicken, which, in turn, affects the quality and healthfulness of the meat. Also, if the chickens “need” antibiotics in the feed or as treatment, that would indicate that what we have is unhealthy chickens. Do we want to eat meat from an unhealthy animal? We can’t properly nourish our bodies with meat from improperly nourished/sickly animals.

    Reply
    • KnitWitty66
      KnitWitty66 says:

      They give them antibiotics because it makes them fatter and is supposed to prevent the chickens from getting sick in the enclosed areas they live in. Towards the end of the chickens lives, they are taken off of the antibiotics so that there is supposed to be no residue of the antibiotics left in the meat.

      Reply
  9. Bety
    Bety says:

    I raised chickens as a hobby at one time. The feed has antibiotics in it. I could not find any feed that didn’t have it. I would just let my chickens walk the yard and eat bugs and stuff. One chicken ate a nest of scorpions. I didn’t take her eggs for a month!!! I love pet chickens. I know young chicks receive a shot of antibiotics before they are shipped or raised also. Natural chickens are hard to find unless you raise them yourself.

    Reply
    • Luisa
      Luisa says:

      Wow, this article was interesting and informative, and the comments were, too. I honestly feel that I am healthier when I consume animal protein, but the way these animals are tortured is intolerable and makes me reconsider vegetarianism. Thanks for the information..

      Reply
  10. Irpag
    Irpag says:

    Really interesting article. I suspect though that there is more to this story. Consumer Reports did a story on chickens that said many of them are carrying dangerous bacteria. It really put me off of chicken. I like the idea of organic foods, both from the standpoint of what I’m putting in my mouth, and what the chemicals are doing to the farm, surrounding wildlife, and the people who work there. I just don’t have the money to buy it. I’m very annoyed with the “flavor solution” that many meats are soaked in these days (e.g., tuna, chicken in prepared foods). It’s meant to make the meat soak up and retain water to make to plumper and weigh more. It also gives the meat a mealy texture I don’t like, and we can’t control the amount of soy we’re ingesting.

    Reply
    • jewelthief2014
      jewelthief2014 says:

      For me, pork, with that “flavor solution” in it, is the worst tasting stuff. I won’t buy it or eat it. When cooked, even in a crock pot, the meat is tough.

      Reply
  11. MP
    MP says:

    I’m not very familiar with chicken, but I do know that beef raised without antibiotics usually end up with absesses, etc. After processing antibiotic-free beef, a processing plant has to shut down to completely sterilize the facility so as to not contaminate the following beef coming in. I’ve seen antibiotic-free beef during processing – and I won’t eat it. Antibiotics are used to keep the beef healthy – and there is no residue allowed in the meat when they are processed.

    Reply
    • Danielle
      Danielle says:

      Antibiotics are generally only necessary if the cattle are raised in unhealthy conditions, such as wading in their own pooh, packed in nose to tail in a feed lot, and being fed grains to fatten them up quickly. They are also given routinely in confined feeding operations as a growth stimulant. Cows living the way cows are supposed to live (on pasture, eating only grass, with plenty of room), don’t need routine antibiotics. And since livestock consume 70% of antibiotics consumed in the US, we should all be concerned about antibiotic use, since it hugely contributes to antibiotic resistance. In addition, cattle on pasture are 80% less likely to to contain E.coli 0157:H7, the strain that causes illness in humans.

      Reply
      • MP
        MP says:

        The cattle I referred to were pasture raised, grass fed, antibiotic-free – and had large oozing absesses.

      • Raine
        Raine says:

        We had a small herd of steers when I was growing up. They were pastured, but they always had grain, too. We kept the barn shoveled (fertilizer), but never ever picked up manure from the field. I honestly don’t remember how often the vet came, but I know it couldn’t have been very often because we were always broke. Farming is really expensive. Also, chickens are completely gross. We always had chickens. Their coop was attached to a big covered pen. I don’t think there was much grass in there because they ruined it. If you had a chicken that was raised on a family farm, you would probably think it was horribly tough unless you seriously brined it.

  12. ajxpressionz
    ajxpressionz says:

    I believe what I am reading here is, “YES!” we are willing to pay extra not to have GMO-based feeds in the foods we eat and feed to our families and “YES” it is worth it beyond a shadow of a doubt to pay the extra money regardless of how this is explained. There are plenty of reasons the readers here have explained quite well why farmers won’t/can’t adhere to this labeling nonsense. I am really disappointed this column would try to convince us it’s labeling explanation sweeps away the real need to be aware of the dangers of GMOs in our food. I would rather cut corners elsewhere than skimp on something as important as nutrition which effects my capacity to think and possibly my susceptibility to future inflammatory-based diseases like lupus and Alzheimer’s.

    Reply
  13. Tracy Harris
    Tracy Harris says:

    I raise 95% of my own meat. I raise chicken, turkeys, duck, cattle, rabbits, and working on starting to raise pigs. Meat is healthier, I know how the animal was raised, and that it was processed humanely. Find a local farm, pay a reasonable price, and our meat will get healthier.

    Reply
    • Barb Ridge
      Barb Ridge says:

      The key word is “reasonable”. Some of these hobby farmers think you should pay through the nose because you’re buying what amounts to the family pet.

      Reply
  14. Michelle Stewart
    Michelle Stewart says:

    No one mentioned that the quality of the eggshell indicates the hen’s health. If eggshells are so thin that they nearly crack in your hand, they were laid by a malnourished hen; such eggs provide reduced nutrition.

    I buy eggs from a local company that boasts using exclusively vegetarian feed, because extracted meat biproducts used in animal feed may transmit prions to the animals that consume it. Although the risk may be minimal, I’d rather err on the side of food safety.

    Reply
  15. Patricia Goff
    Patricia Goff says:

    I will buy organic when I can afford to. Some weeks there is more of a paycheck left than other weeks after paying bills. I can’t give up anything as I don’t eat out but every three months and my boss pays for that. LOL I even turn off the air and heat whenever I can to save money and yes we do save money when we do this. I open windows or close the curtains to keep the house cooler or warmer. We have our own garden so we eat a lot of organic produce and fruit.

    Reply

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