All About Chicken Part 2 Alternatives to Factory Farmed
Good afternoon local food eaters,
What’s with the weather? While we did enjoy walking with friends we were visiting in Pittsburgh in the near 70 degrees on Saturday, it just felt kinda wrong. I couldn’t help but wonder, what will happen to our maple syrup harvest if it stays like this? What if the cherry and plum trees put out early buds that get killed by the frost, like last year? What if we never have cherries anymore??? (This line of thinking was leading to nowhere, so I quickly moved on to more relevant problem solving, like how to stop the pack of 5 kids I was with from accidentally falling into the river).
The Chicago Sun Times said that Saturday January 21 was 59 degrees at O’Hare Airport, just shy of the weather record for that location of 62 degrees set on January 21, 1908.
On to the topic at hand: better choices for chicken. If you missed All About Chicken Part 1 it was about the many problems of the existing poultry industry and why we should seek out alternatives.
All About Chicken Part 2: Labeling and Sourcing Alternatives to Factory Farmed Chicken
When shopping for chicken, all of the "natural" and "free of" promises and vague terms can definitely be confusing.
In the article What You Should Know about Poultry Production Claims, David Maren of Tendergrass Farms says,
“From my perspective as a grass fed and pasture raised meats farmer, the claims and the intricate marketing loopholes that poultry companies have manufactured to carve out their portion of the often ignorant and uninformed public seem extremely harmful – both to the farmer who is trying to do things right and competing in the marketplace and the consumer who isn’t eating what they think they are. Ultimately, meat companies depend on people not informing themselves and I’d like to work against that. [emphasis mine]”
Here are some of the main terms you’ll find on poultry labels today:
Natural: According to the USDA, the word natural means that it contains no artificial ingredients or colors and was “minimally processed”. So on a package of chicken, it would mean that you’re getting just chicken, or mostly chicken (injected brines and other liquids can be “natural”) without preservatives. This doesn’t mean anything about how the meat was raised.
Cage free: In the case of meat chickens, this term is actually completely irrelevant, as no chickens are raised for meat in cages. David Maren explains,
“As you’ve probably seen in photos of big chicken confinement houses, typically upwards of 20,000 chickens are packed into a warehouse-style building without a single cage. The truth is that using cages to raise chickens (or turkeys) for meat would be extremely expensive, difficult, and all-around just plain impractical. Notably, egg layer chickens are often confined to cages so it would appear that companies that claim to offer “cage free” poultry are using that fact to their advantage in hopes that consumers won’t notice the difference. Reality is that caged chicken is pretty hard to come by unless you’re eating very cheap canned chicken soup made from old spent layer hens.”
Vegetarian Fed, 100% Vegetarian Fed: USDA labeling laws require approval of this claim. It means that chickens are fed grains only, and not intentionally fed animal byproducts. In my opinion, “vegetarian fed” should be an attempt at a food safety claim, as it was probably started to stop spread of poultry diseases and food-borne illnesses. Two problems with this: First, that it doesn’t stop live chickens from actually feeding on dead chickens in the confinement house before they are removed.
Secondly, chickens aren’t actually vegetarian; they are omnivores. So it is not an animal welfare or nutrition claim, rather the opposite. In a natural setting, chickens use their beaks and claws that are just right for scratching to turn up and peck at worms, grubs, and insects of all kinds. I've seen a group of chickens chase a kill a small mouse in a barn. Their high protein requirements are taken into account when their feed rations are designed, with (GMO) soybeans as the protein source. Unfortunately for the chickens, this leaves their diet with a methionine (essential amino acid) deficiency, leading to health problems and cravings that make them peck at and try to kill each other. Hence the clipping of the beaks to minimize the damage. From this Washington Post article on how chickens are not vegetarians:
“‘They’re really like little raptors - they want meat,’ said Blake Alexandre, the owner of a 30,000 chicken operation in far northern California that keeps its birds on pasture. ‘The idea that they ought to be vegetarians is ridiculous.’ ‘This is one of those problems caused by the fact that most Americans are so far removed from their food supply,” said Tracy Favre, a farmer and organic inspector who serves on the federal advisory board for organic products. “When I see eggs in the supermarket being advertised as vegetarian this and that, I cringe.’”
Free Range: It is important to understand that this is not the same as “pastured” or “pasture-raised”. Free range has a lovely sound to it, seeming to imply that the animals definitely have been freely ranging. Not so simple.
USDA requirements for free range are no cages (see cage free, above), and that there is an access door to the outside. It doesn’t have to be to a field or pasture, it could be access to a dirt lot or a paved parking lot. There is no requirement for space, so it could be that access is to a very small concrete pad. Also, the chickens may or may not know where this access door is or how to use it. Another misleading and irrelevant claim in the opinion of experts.
Certified Organic: Requirements for certified organic poultry production mandate 100% organic feed (that means non-GMO, and no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides used to grow the feed, and no urea/manure/sewage sludge in the feed[!]), no mammalian or poultry slaughter byproducts fed, no hormones, no antibiotics, outdoor access, and no irradiation. Now we’re getting somewhere. Certified organic is a higher standard of production, and given the choice I would definitely choose organic chicken over conventional. Unfortunately, organic doesn’t necessarily mean ideal. David Maren says, “The term access, once again, usually refers to some type of small door at the end of a conventional confinement house which the birds may or may not really use. Unless the terms “pasture raised” or “pastured,” are used, when you see “USDA Organic” chicken or turkey think ‘CAFO birds raised on certified organic feed without antibiotics.’” That’s CAFO as in Confined Animal Feeding Operation, or warehouse style.
Pastured, Raised on Pasture, Pasture-Raised: These are synonyms at the time of this writing. However, I don’t doubt that there is potential for these terms, as happened with 'free range', to lose their purity if and when they start being used by the industrial food system in order to sell more conventional chicken. For now, Pasture-Raised means exactly that - poultry raised for the majority of its life in a completely outdoor setting. The poultry are allowed to express their natural instincts of rooting and hunting for bugs, and foraging for weeds and other wild plants. It generally (but not always) implies nonGMO or organic feed, and no antibiotic use.
Mark Sisson, a Paleo nutrition expert recommends “Pastured – It’s harder to come by and pricier than organic, but the poultry offers more nutritionally through extra nutrients like vitamin E, folic acid and B-12 as well as more omega-3s. Even though pastured chicken might not be labeled antibiotic-free, it’s likely the farm doesn’t use medication. It’s extra work to pasture birds, which indicates a greater commitment on the farmer’s part. Plus, the chickens are less likely to need antibiotics when they live on a natural diet with plenty of space.”
We are fortunate to now have choices at most grocery stores nationwide. We can prioritize organic and antibiotic free, for the sake of our environment and health. And there are plenty of local, "beyond organic", pasture-raised meat options.
For top quality and every day food you can feel good about, it seems that we always return to the pretty reliable maxim of “know your farmer”. If you have concerns about how the chicken (or milk, or chocolate, or produce) that you eat is raised, ask the farmer. Go to the website of the brand you are buying, and call them for specifics.
We love giving farm tours at our open farm days and showing people the life cycle of a chicken. As we steadily move towards increasing sustainability with our poultry production through continually experimenting with things like transitioning to heritage breeds, and trying out local and available food inputs like black soldier flies, we aim always to provide the highest quality food possible.
Highest quality food comes from a biodiverse, natural system. This, we believe, is the future of agriculture, a future that we are all part of creating.
Thanks again for taking the time to become wiser about where your food comes from, so you can choose wisely!
~Brooks and Anna