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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.

Hormone-Free
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.

All-Natural
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.

Organic
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.”

Pastured
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?