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organic living journey defining chicken labels

The following is part of an Organic Journey Guest Post Series written by Amy, a long time helper behind the scenes of Southern Savers.

After last week’s discovery about toxic load I am ready to tackle the meats we eat.  We have finally finished off our Zaycon chicken from last year so it is time to stock my freezer with chicken.  Only now, I am wanting to be more mindful of what we are eating.  Let the research begin!  We were on a family outing, and on a whim, I stopped by to see how much more it was going to cost me to get chicken that was better for our family.  I was assaulted by more lingo, but I was encouraged!  After nearly 6 months of doing all of this research, I had a clue.  The labels weren’t nearly so confusing.  Nonetheless, let’s take a crash course in how chicken is labeled.

It sounds wonderful doesn’t it?  However, this is straight up marketing.  No poultry can be treated with hormones legally.  That means that every piece of chicken in the store is hormone free making the label meaningless.

Doesn’t this conjure up such pretty pictures of chickens pecking happily in a field?  Well actually, according to the USDA, it indicates that, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.”  How would a person fundamentally alter chicken?  I don’t think I want to know.

The FDA says that artificial ingredients are anything not produced in nature or are made synthetically.  So, you could have salt water or other “natural” ingredients injected into your chicken which is called plumping.  This increases the weight of the chicken (meaning you pay more for less chicken) and increases the sodium.  The easiest way to determine if the chicken you are purchasing has been plumped is to check the sodium content.  Fresh chicken should have no more than 70 mg per 4 oz according to Foster Farms.

Antibiotic Free or No Antibiotics Added
In order to use this label, the chickens have to be raised without antibiotics used.  Which, from all we’ve been learning, is a good thing.

Cage Free
This simply means that the chickens are not in cages.  It does not mean that they are outside.  They can still be enclosed in over packed hen houses.  One source said that it is rare to cage chickens being raised for their meat.

Free Range
Per the USDA, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”  Yep, that’s it.  Does the chicken have to be outside ever?  Nope.  It just has to have access.  Even if the chicken chooses to go outside, this doesn’t mean that outside is a luscious green field where a chicken can forage for worms and bugs and munch on some grass.  Outside could be a concrete parking lot.  Because of this definition, I personally think the Free Range label is pretty worthless in evaluating what kind of chicken you are getting.

100% Vegetarian Diet
This label is the most deceiving to me.  I get really excited thinking that the chickens aren’t eating animal byproducts (happy dance!)  Then, reality came crashing down on me.  This also means that the chickens aren’t foraging for bugs either if they are eating 100% veggies.  It also doesn’t tell me what kind of vegetables they are eating.  Are they genetically modified?  Are they soy based?  Is the feed laden with chemicals and pesticides?  And did you know this, some feed even has arsenic in it!  Good grief.  I just read in the New York Times that chickens are given feed that often has benadryl in it to calm them, arsenic to reduce infection and make their flesh a pretty pink and that’s just the beginning of the list.  No one fully knows how these practices will affect our health.  The FDA has said that the arsenic is in levels that aren’t harmful to us, but I’ll be honest, it isn’t something I want to feed to my family at any level.

This label tells us more than any other.  Here’s what we get when we purchase organic chicken.  The chickens must be given feed that is 100% organic (which means no pesticides, no animal byproducts and no GMO).  They may not be given antibiotics and must be given access to the outdoors year-round.  (Again, access does not indicate that they are going outside.)

We learn something else when we see that chickens aren’t being given antibiotics.  One article states, “In addition to the feed, certain husbandry techniques are prohibited in organic production. Since antibiotics are not allowed at all, chickens can’t be contained in the literal wing-to-wing density that conventional producers use; with that cramming, it would be impossible to keep disease at bay without drugs.”

If you see this label, you will need to know your farmer because the USDA doesn’t regulate this label at all.  Pastured is what we all imagine chickens doing though, clucking around and pecking for bugs in the grass and grazing a bit on grass (they really don’t eat that much as they only have one stomach).  Pastured chickens are supplemented with feed.  The assumption is that if a farmer is taking the time to rotate his chickens to different pastures to eat, then they are most likely taking good care of their chickens as a whole (including antibiotic usage and feed), but that is an assumption.  You have to ask to make sure you are getting what you think that you are.  Penn State studied pastured chickens to see how their nutritional content changed and discovered this: “From this study we confirmed three nutritional advantages of raising hens on pasture as compared to an industry diet in cages: they increases in omega-3 fatty acids and in vitamins A and E. We also found that differences in omega-3 levels in plants have an effect on the eggs.”

After learning all of this, I realize that I was snowed under by the labeling when I went shopping earlier.  I thought I was getting a great deal on something that was truly good for my family, but really, the marketing won.  Doesn’t that just stink?  After researching for a few hours, I am totally disturbed by what I’ve been feeding my family and myself.  I might have been saving money on our food, but what impact will that have on our health and our medical bills long term.  Well, now we know, and hopefully, that can help all of us make better decisions.

My baby step, figure out how to afford organic chicken.  (Pastured would be lovely, but not essential.)  If we want to avoid all the junk, it seems the only way to go.  My plan is to eat less.  I grew up in the South.  The land of meat and potatoes where chicken pot pie was loaded with chicken and lean on veggies.  It is time to get creative and start increasing the veggies in order to stretch the meat!

So, next week, we are going to start shopping.  We’ll look at where you can find the type of chicken that fits your priorities and your budget.  For now, a little tip.  If you want a good deal on antibiotic-free, vegetarian fed, boneless, skinless chicken breasts, Fresh Market has them on sale every Tuesday in January for $2.99/lb.  That might just be a good baby step for your family!

Is all of this as shocking to you as it is to me?  What part bothers you the most?  What baby step do you want to take?

    • I am horrified by our food source and was also thrown off by all the labels. I have felt trapped into buying the cheapest chicken on the market and stocking up on all the until I figure a way to afford JUST CHICKEN. I have groaned every time I have pulled out the chicken from the freezer to feed lord knows what to my family. I am going to have to do the only thing I can do and cut other areas of my budget to afford real food and also eat less meats. Now, I just have to convince my southern husband that he does not need meat and potatoes every night! Thank you for what you do, you have done wonders for my family in all the research and match-ups you do!

      • amysanders

        it is horrifying, isn’t it? when i tell my 8 year old about what they are putting in our foods, she is outraged. she thinks it should be illegal. :) it does change they way we think about not only our shopping, but also our prep of food, doesn’t it?

        • And to me, that’s not even the worst part – the inhumane treatment of the animals is what prompted me to switch. Now we have a lot more meatless meals, and use the savings from that to cover the purchase of meat from animals that were treated better. I love White Oak Pastures meat, if you get a chance to try it. Good treatment of the animals AND the people who work there, and the taste is fantastic. There are other places around too, that’s just one that’s easy to find since they have it at Whole Foods or you can order online.

    • organic mama

      Check out eatwild.com. It lists farmers, state by state, who sell beef, chicken, lamb, pork, etc. that are truly raised organically/grass fed/bug fed, and have healthy livestock management practices (as described by Michael Pollan in the Omnivore’s Dilemma. Plus you are buying directly from a farm that you can visit and see how they raise their livestock.

    • Mamaberry

      The more veggies you feed your family, the more full they feel. Sounds strange when we have always associated carbs and meat with a ‘real meal’. But when given a chance, your body will adjust. Wild caught fish is an option too. Salmon if you can get it. Remember that a serving of meat is only the size of the palm of your hand, not the 16oz steak that most cut into.

      All very easy adjustments to make to your diet, but also very nutritious and healthy. The more ‘alkaline’ you can make your body, the less it will crave the acidity of the meat.

      (please know I LOVE a good steak every now and then! I am human you know ;-)

    • katkoupon

      You know, I’ve read most of this quite a few times, but I still find myself needing a refresher because it is just so much to remember. Thanks for putting it all in one place for us! I found organic whole chickens at Costco for $2.99/lb, so I was buying those. I now buy whole birds from a local farmer (truly pastured) for $3.99/lb. I like to put the whole bird in my crockpot, add a little salt and apple cider vinegar, and let it cook for about a day. I use the meat to make several dishes: chicken salad (with fruit and veggies to help spread it out ;), a Mexican style dish, and my husband likes to grab a couple of limbs to put straight in his lunch for work. I add a little more water to the remaining broth and let that roll a little more, and then I have the best homemade chicken stock! I use it for mashed potatoes, soups, simmering veggies…it’s good for so many dishes. I also love to drink it straight from the crockpot. The bones are usually so brittle I feed that and the skin to my dog. No part of that bird gets wasted! It’s my way of stretching those dollars a little bit more.

      • Mamaberry

        LOVE when you can make full use of EVERYTHING… feels so good to be less wasteful! I am not always the best in this area. Good intentions don’t always pan out for me sometimes!! Thanks for the information!

      • TheChapLeigh

        Hahahah!! I do the SAME thing, right down to the chicken salad with other stuff in it, stock, eating straight from the crockpot, and then feeding the remnants to the dogs!! If I’m paying that much for it, you better believe I’m getting my money’s worth ;)

    • angie

      yes, it has been disheartening learning all of the above! i’m probably more sad about the deceptive labeling than about the food itself! like you, i decided to go less meat. stretching a whole organic chicken, buying breasts when on sale, freezing and using sparingly, etc. more veggies with good recipes and we don’t fee like we are missing out at all! we not only feel better about what we are eating, but our tastebuds are actually happy too.

    • Jeffy Walker

      So buying Natural Chicken isn’t good for you???

      • amysanders

        all natural just tells you about the processing. it doesn’t tell you anything about what those chickens were fed. sorry. :(

    • scottish

      I found the best organic chicken is vacuumed sealed and from Costco. The also have cheapest price per pound. Never had any problem with freezer burn.

    • TheChapLeigh

      Heh heh, the “vegetarian fed” label got me awhile back, too. I kicked myself for not realizing it on my own, LOL! What I can’t believe, either, is how deceptive the marketing is… I fell for the “all natural” label at first, too… then when I learned that with “all natural” flavoring, it simply means that flavor, injected into the food product, was not chemically manufactured, but that it came from a found-in-nature source — although it may have NOTHING to do with the item I’m eating. I can only imagine how it carries over with poultry.
      If we aren’t able to slaughter our own chickens (it’s time consuming, and quite frankly, we just don’t have it down to a science, they are very lean, & don’t yield much meat), I choose the organic chicken I find on manager’s special and immediately repackage to freeze or cook that day & then use in other dishes the following days, or dice & then freeze for later. On manager’s special here at Lowes Foods or Harris Teeter, I get it for $2.99/lb. It’s otherwise $3.99/lb for legs/thighs/whole bird, and $5.99/lb for chicken breast. CRAZY!! I look at those chickens, compared to my own free-ranging hens, and I know they are still doing something I probably wouldn’t find ideal with their breeding & feeding… because those are some gigantic birds when compared to my truly free-ranging birds. Last year we didn’t eat chicken for probably 6 months because we just didn’t have anymore of our own in our freezer, and I couldn’t stomach the prices of the organic store-bought (before I found the manager’s specials).
      On another note, are the FreshMarket hens organically raised? For some reason I remember looking over their meats & fish & couldn’t find any indicator that they were any more than the “all natural” label. Am I mistaken? I know I should ask them myself, but our store is SO SMALL, crammed with snooty people, and they all stare at me with my pile of kids probably wondering if I actually AM going to knock over the wine display with my cart, LOL!!!!!

      • amysanders

        the fresh market in our area does not carry any organic chicken. the one on sale is antibiotic free and vegetarian fed (so no animal byproducts in their feed, at least) and don’t you hate snooty stores!

        • TheChapLeigh

          Ahhh, yes, I see that now after rereading what you’d said about FM chicken above.
          Sidenote: it’s the SHOPPERS at my FM that are snooty — the EMPLOYEES are fabulous ;) I just wish they wouldn’t pack our store so tight that you can’t navigate easily without either knocking over the wine display OR the snooty person…

    • veganpadua

      After reading this article, it just reminds me how glad I am to be a vegetarian. The faux meat products have come such a long way and with BOGO sales and a coupon, I stock up my freezer for cheap and eat healthy :)

    • Ashley Williams

      So glad you broke this down Amy. When you first started this series, I was looking at chicken at Publix and noticed how their Greenwise chicken (which nowhere on the package does it call it ‘organic’) says the exact same claims on the label as their regular Publix chicken. I had thought about asking you if you were ever going to research meat. And now you have! Thanks!

      • amysanders

        that makes me curious as to what their normal chicken says. is it antibiotic free and vegetarian fed? fascinating.

      • Tina

        There is a difference Greenwise states no Antibiotics, which Publix’s normal chicken does not to the best of my Knowledge.

    • Jackie

      I have not had success going vegan with my family. We love meat. I have liked the idea helping that meat stretch farther though. I have found that soups, chili, and casseroles have been the best for that and kid friendly. I half the meat and double the veggies and beans and it works well. I heard on a documentary a guy from an Asian country saying that meat to them is sort of a flavoring rather than the main dish, so I have tried to think of it that way. Thanks for all the info. on chicken labels. I have been dying to understand it better.

    • Shelby

      Thanks for spreading the truth, even on a coupon site! I always hear people use the excuse that they can’t afford to eat organic and it’s just the opposite. Our country is full of sick people, paying $$$ in medical bills… our daughters going through puberty at 8 & 9… when are we going to realize our food sources affect us? And I love seeing overweight people complain about money for food…Truly if Americans would start eating more like central Americans and eat nutritionally dense, cheap foods like beans instead of dollar menu food everything would change.

    • Jess f

      So is the Zaycon meat not antibiotic free? If not, is there another similar company that sells the antibiotic free in bulk?

    • April

      So………. the Zaycon chicken deal is up again…….. is it anti-biotic free? Does anyone know?