How To Buy Chicken: Reverse Label Reading

July 10, 2016

free range – vegetarian fed – no hormones added – no antibiotics – organic* – pastured – local – all natural – 100% guaranteed – fresh – barn roaming – no added solutions or injections – no preservatives – minimally processed – no artificial ingredients – air chilled –  no animal byproducts – cage free – biodynamic* – USDA processed verified – no steroids added – no salt added – lean – animal welfare ratings* – global animal partnership*  *=third party verification.

Chicken. Do you ever wonder what you are actually buying? Do you feel overwhelmed in the chicken section and default to buying what’s on sale? What’s with all the labels and what do they all mean anyways?

After reading this you will be a master chicken buyer by using a little method I like to call reverse label reading. The trick to buying chicken is not actually reading the label but “reverse label reading” – reading between the lines and understanding what is not spelled out for the buyer.  I will walk you through a few examples and you will be a pro in no time.

Let’s start by saying ideally chickens should get 25% of their diet from foraging on the land (eating bugs, worms and grass) and about 75% from grain.  They should live outdoors with access to shelter from the elements and predators. The grain should be free from pesticides, chemicals and GMOs.  In this scenario you are getting nutrient-dense meat that feeds your body and helps it grow and thrive.

Great! So what’s the label for this kind of chicken?  It’s important to point out that most of the labels listed above are pretty misleading. Many of them imply one thing when the reality is quite the opposite. It’s all about clever marketing and word play to promote the positive while hiding the negative. This coupled with the fact that third party verification is lacking on most of these labels makes for some tricky buying.  Let’s look at a few of these as an example: 

Free Range

The USDA states chickens with this label need access to the outside but they do not specify what kind of outside, nor do they state duration or square footage requirements.  This labeling implies that chickens are foraging on pasture but in some cases a small balcony with wire over the top of it checks that box for a sea of chickens crammed into a commercial chicken house. The probability of all of those chickens accessing the “outside” is slim to none. 

No Hormones

Ignore this one. By federal law, hormones are not allowed to be used when raising chickens so this claim carries no weight. It is used to imply the chicken is something more than it really is. More healthy or more clean when the reality is it’s just the same as every other chicken.

No Antibiotics

To ensure your chicken is raised without antibiotics you need to buy organic. Whole Foods also promises their customers chicken raised without antibiotics. You may see the label “antibiotic free” which can mean that antibiotics were used but are no longer detected due to a specific withdrawal period or amount of time passed.  Antibiotic use is prevalent for several reasons including the prevention and treatment of disease. For example, chickens are attracted to the color red and if they see an injured chicken they will attack and kill. So in those big commercial chicken houses, under the sea of chickens there is a layer of sick and dead chickens spreading disease. To top it all off, there is no system in place to verify if antibiotics were used or not so we are left trusting labels and big commercial farming companies to be honest.  

Antibiotics are also killing the good bacteria in our gut and are a culprit in helping to create antibiotic resistant superbugs. When antibiotics are in our meat, we have no idea how much antibiotic we are ingesting and the effects this has on our system. 

Vegetarian Fed

This is an interesting one. This means chickens have been fed a diet free of animal products. This does not speak to outdoor access explicitly but implicitly it is loaded with meaning. Chickens by nature need protein, especially meat birds who are bread to grow at a rapid rate. When a label says “vegetarian fed” this means that ALL of their protein is from veg/grains meaning there is ZERO chance this bird got outside to forage.  In addition, 99% of the time this means soy-based grains.   

It also does not address what the grain actually IS. Most likely chemical and pesticide laden GMO veg/grain with synthetic additives

So when you see “vegetarian fed” read: confined with no access to the outdoors and fed soy/GMO.

Let me just add a little background about meat birds. You know how dogs have been bred to showcase specific qualities. This is happening with chickens too. Meat chickens have been bred to be fast growing, docile, meaty and comfortable in small environments.  These chickens grow at an alarming rate and are slaughtered between 6-13 weeks. Broiler chickens around 6 weeks and and 8-10 weeks for Cornish Cross. The slaughtering happens before sexual maturity so males and females can be raised together with out fighting.  A local farmer here says these chickens are so lazy and immobile that he puts the food on one side of the chicken house and the water on the other to encourage movement and keep them healthy. A local procurer says, “It’s phenomenal, they grow at an alarming rate and they don’t move.” Important to consider because this means that even if these chickens are given access to the outdoors they may not take advantage of it.

So lets go shopping together and I can show you what I mean by reverse label reading.

 Perdue

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LABELED: vegetarian diet, cage free, no animal byproducts, USDA Products Verified

NOT LABELED: Fed GMO grains, toxic pesticides, synthetic fillers, soy (a known endocrine disruptor). Antibiotic use for sure. This animal probably never saw the light of day and maybe never even took a step.  These commercial chicken houses are so packed that some chickens truly never move, especially the injured ones. For more on that check out the documentary Food Inc.  

“USDA Products Verified” is a quality systems audit regarding the processes the farm/company follows. The farm/company has a documented management system and the USDA verifies that management system is being used. It does not mean anything to the consumer.

Why is GMO feed for animals concerning? Our bodies can only be as good as the food we eat. Studies are lacking on the effects of GMO foods on humans but lets take GMO corn for example. Monsanto’s BT corn is made by taking a gene from a naturally occurring bacterium and inserting it into he DNA of the corn. The modified corn becomes lethal to insects. So when a bug eats this corn, it dies. This corn is then harvested and sold in your local grocery store.  No independent third party research has been done on GMOs and is not required.

Bell & Evans

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LABELED: All natural, all vegetarian diet, raised without antibiotics, 100% air chilled

NOT LABELED: Pesticides, GMO feed including soy and synthetic fillers. No access to the outdoors and over crowding. 

Soy is one of those foods like corn, you can assume it is GMO and found in everything (baked goods, canned tuna, meats, cereal, cookies, crackers, infant formula, canned broths and soups and in pretty much every restaurant it’s used as a cooking oil). Because of this, the average person may be eating high doses of soy without even realizing it.  Scientific studies indicate soy may reduce fertility in women, trigger premature puberty and disrupt the development of fetuses and children. Soy is a commodity crop with  94% of it grown in the US being GMO.  GMO soy is an herbicide tolerant plant designed to withstand specific herbicides which would kill non-modified soy. Meaning they can spray it to death with herbicide to kill pests but the crop won’t die.

Independent Science News tested both GMO soy and organic soy and found, “Roundup Ready GMO-soy accumulates residues of glyphosate and AMPA, and also differs markedly in nutritional composition compared to soybeans from other agricultural practices. Organic soybean samples also showed a more healthy nutritional profile (e.g. higher in protein and lower in saturated fatty acids) than both industrial conventional and GMO soybeans.”

Meat birds grow so rapidly and need a high protein diet.  GMO soy is where they are getting it.  In Massachusetts, farmers can not even buy non-GMO feed.  There is literally a waiting list.  Even when farmers go with organic feed, they are eliminating toxic pesticide contamination but it still most likely has soy because obtaining soy-free feed is an even bigger challenge.

Whole Foods 365

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LABELED: no antibiotics or added hormones, vegetarian diet, no added solutions or injections and Global Partnership Step 2, fresh

NOT LABELED: GMO feed, toxic pesticides and chemicals plus synthetic fillers and soy in grains, and this chicken never saw the outside. 

Also, we see “GAP Step 2.” This stands for the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) – 5 Step Animal Welfare Ratings System for Chickens Raised for Meat. I see it mostly at Whole Foods. Steps and standards vary depending on the specific type of livestock. This system is third party verified. 

Step 2 means (simplified for the sake of this article):

  • GMOs in feed
  • No outdoor access
  • And something like a bail of hay as its one required indoor enrichment

USDA Certified Organic

Okay so let’s up the ante and look at an organic chicken like this:

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Labeled: USDA Certified Organic, vegetarian diet, no growth hormones, no antibiotics and free range. All good stuff here – organic feed meaning no GMOs, no pesticides and no chemicals. No antibiotics, no animal byproducts – this all looks pretty good!

Not labeled: This chicken has limited, if any, access to the outdoors and may experience overcrowding. Access to pasture is NOT a requirement for organic birds. And probably fed soy.

Certified organic birds have a list of standards that need to be met including access to the outdoors, sunlight, shade and fresh water.  These standards are interpreted differently by different organic certifying agencies. Not every agency requires that ALL birds be allowed outside. So for example there could be a 600 bird yard with 1,000 birds in the house making it impossible for all of them to be out at the same time. They would have to go out in shifts. Bay State would not certify an operation like this. It’s complicated because standards do not specify how much outdoor access is required and farms will shop around until they find an agency who will certify them.  – Don Franczyk, Bay State Organic Certifiers

At this point the only real difference between organic chicken and conventional chicken is organic promises no antibiotic use and no GMOs. That’s it.  These are two advantages for sure but without guaranteed access to the outdoors, these birds are missing out on a huge nutritional component. Organic birds are being raised in large scale, packed chicken houses with no guarantee they are getting outside.

And even more shocking there is absolutely no difference in post processing for organic verses non-organic – I’m talking chlorine baths and all that other chemical stuff. Regulations for slaughter are governed by the size of the farm. Farms with over 20,000 birds fall under federal regulations and those under 20,000 will follow state regs. Here in Massachusetts this means the Department of Public Health.

Incase you are interested here are the resources for our federal and state processing requirements:

USDA Regs

Massachusetts Regs

The take-away here is if you want to get a chicken that has not been processed with the use of chlorine and other chemicals, you need to buy local and you need to talk to your farmer to see what their slaughter process is – or what the process at the slaughter house that they use is. Chemical free birds exist, you just need to find it. It’s definitely not going to be from a 20,000+ bird farm so you have to take it local.

I talked to one local farmer who processes on site and he said the only chemical they use is, “a sanitizing solution (water with 100ppm of bleach) to spray down the surfaces of the processing area before we start and after we’re finished. We also clean and sanitize the processing table with the solution if someone accidentally punctures an intestine, bladder, or bile sac during processing. We don’t put any bleach in the cooling tank, which I know is common practice in large scale chicken processing facilities.”  If you want to find a something like this near you you have to go local and you have to ask questions. Labels won’t give you the nitty gritty on slaughtering practices.

So where do we go from here?

This is what I think. It’s not fair to the farmer who is doing everything right and truthfully labeling their chickens.  The sad reality is the consumer can not rely on labeling alone because big business has taken advantage of the system. The best chicken you can buy is going to be from a local farmer who pastures their chickens and supplements with organic feed.  Local is best to reduce carbon footprint, increases diversity and choice plus its fresher and more nutrient dense.  The one downside is it’s probably more expensive considering a 5 pound commercial bird costs about 15.00 and an organic one averages about 25.00.  But with this you are buying your health and casting a vote for the type of food you want to be available for your family. If we stop voting for local, pastured, organic birds, we will lose these resources. Simple as that.

Where’s The Voting Booth?

Try hitting up your local farmers market to find a farm near you.

It’s important to ask the farmer questions about their product to ensure you are getting what you think you are buying.

Here is a list of questions to start the conversation off. And please remember the farmers we meet at local markets are our friends! These are the people we want to support and the type of businesses we want to see thrive.  Have a healthy conversation about their farming practices and please be friendly and respectful. These small farms are most likely not USDA Organic Certified but they may be farming organically or better.

  • Are your chickens pastured?
  • Are they rotated to different pastures?
  • How many hours a day are they allowed out?
  • Do you use organic feed?
  • If the feed is not organic, does it contain GMO?
  • Do you routinely give your birds medicine? (dust mite treatments or antibiotics?)
  • Can I visit the farm? (Farmers who are doing things right will want to share and welcome visitors).
  • Are your birds slaughtered in a USDA approved facility? 
  • Is the slaughter humane?

What do I do?

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I currently get my chicken from a couple different sources.  I met a local woman who raises her own chickens in her backyard which you can see in this pic. This is Valley View Farm in Norwell, MA.  Last year I picked up chickens a few times from her as she had them processed.  They live in mobile coops at night and are allowed to roam the backyard and woods. She feeds them organic feed – I’ve seen the bag she buys from a supplier in Vermont.  And the chicks come from a linage of non-GMO chickens. It’s pretty awesome.  These are not certified organic but they are pretty much the most nutrient dense, clean chicken you can find.  I found her by searching EatWild.com – Check it out to find organic farms in your area.

During the summer I also buy from DaSilva Farms which is a pastured, non-GMO chicken and egg vendor at my local farmers market in Braintree, MA.  

When I go to the grocery I look for chicken that is either Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Step 5/5+ or USDA certified organic. Either way there is a compromise with any of these choices. Both AWA and GAP rating systems have pasture requirements that are stronger then the USDA Certified Organic label however they allow the use of feed with GMOs. On the flip side, USDA certified organic has no pasture requirement so it’s not as nutrient dense as a pastured chicken but at least there are no toxic chemicals, pesticides or GMOs in the chickens diet. In my opinion it’s a toss up as to which of these birds is the cleanest.  

This year I am trying Freedom Food Farm’s meat share (and veg share too). This farm is not certified organic but it is the stuff that dreams are made of. Their chickens are raised on pasture and get moved twice daily to new pasture. They are fed organic feed and organically grown produce scraps. They process some of their own chickens and sell both fresh and frozen at their farm. They also raise pastured pork, pastured goat and lamb and 100% grass-fed beef. Plus they have raw, organic cheeses for sale too. And soy free eggs! That place is a little piece of heaven.

Here’s the deal. Buying holy grail chickens are not an option for everyone for various reasons including availability and economic feasibility. It’s not fair that access to clean food is becoming a class issue. Not everyone has 25.00 to spend on a 5 pound bird. (Freedom Food Farms sells a 3 lb chicken for 33.00!) The rich have the means and access while people with lower incomes don’t. And it’s not just an economical issue, it’s a supply issue. In some areas organic pastured birds are just not available. We need to create a bigger demand.

What can we do? Here is my personal hierarchy of chicken buying and a practical take-away. The point being if you can move one rung up on this ladder from what you are buying now, consider it a success.

  • local – pastured – organic – soy-free
  • local – pastured – organic
  • local – pastured – nonGMO -antibiotic free
  • Animal Welfare Approved OR GAP Step 5 or 5+ at Whole Foods OR Organic
  • GAP Step 1-4
  • antibiotic free – vegetarian fed
  • processed chicken with fillers like nuggets, patties and burgers
  • deli meats

As a side note, making bone broth is a hot topic right now. It’s super healing and great way to stretch your dollar.  It can be used when making soups, stews, sauces, purees, rice, quinoa, couscous etc. Bone broth requires simmering bones for hours or days to pull nutrients. It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the origin of the chicken and its diet.  My personal recommendation would be to buy organic at minimum. And if you are buying pre-made broth it is worth the extra dollar for the USDA certified organic bone broth.

Big Picture

Buying healthy, clean chicken is not just about us as individuals and what we put into our bodies.  It’s big picture. It’s supporting a healthy planet and environment. We are fighting a broader fight if we are not engineering and selecting crops and animals or spraying pesticides and chemical treatments.  We are taking a stand if we are not forcing growth, testing nature and supporting commercial monopolies. We create a call to action by bringing in diversity, supporting local and allowing nature to call on its own checks and balances.

GMOs are creating huge environmental impacts. Buying GMO supports a larger and stronger amount of pesticide use. Pesticide residue is detected on our fruits and vegetables. It is entering out water system which is not good for consumption or the environment.  With the corn example above, some of these bugs die when they eat GMO corn but some survive and they breed. New tolerant super bugs are emerging which require heavier and stronger chemicals and additional crop modification. GMOs are a short term solution. Right now we have one GMO brand of canola seed that is cross-pollinating with a second GMO brand of canola and as a result it’s producing a third variation that is now out there.  We can never take it back or close the door on this because it is out there and we have lost control over something we took under control.

Regardless of the health implications of consuming GMOs, diversity is imperative to survival. Take the Avian Influenza outbreak as an example. These chickens are bread to have very little genetic diversity and although they are not clones, they can be considered genetically identical. The risk in this is when there is an outbreak like Avian Influenza last year and they all die. Over 8 million chickens and turkeys died from this outbreak in 2015. None of them had resistance because they were all identical and there is no disease resistance in this scenario.  The interesting thing about this is Avian Influenza is vectored in by wild ducks. These outbreaks took place in the Fort Knox of chicken houses – closed systems houses where the chickens never got outside and extreme biohazard checks and sanitation procedures are in place to ensure nothing got in either. The point is, when we move from genetic diversity to a monoculture of animals and a monoculture of crops they are subject to collapse when environmentally challenged. Over 90% of the corn grown in the US is GMO. Over 90% of the soy grown in the US is GMO. Over 90% of the cotton grown in the US is GMO. Growing GMO is not a long term solution.

We can make an impact and foster long term sustainability by being discerning consumers.

By fighting big and taking a broad approach: buying organic and biodynamic fruits and veggies, buying local pastured meat, and supporting the farms that are maintaining these precious resources, everything around us will automatically be cleaner.  Buy from people who support this vision and your kitchen will ultimately be healthier.

Where do you buy your chicken? Or maybe you raise your own? What do you think? Comment! I would love to keep this conversation going!


Sources are imbedded with links throughout this article.

Additional sources include conversations with:

Pam Denholm – Copy Editor for Edible South Shore & South Coast – Owner of South Shore Organics

Don Franczyk – Executive Director – Bay State Organic Certifiers

Scott Zoback – Massachusetts Department of Public Health

Chuck Currie of Freedom Food Farm, Raynham, MA

1 Thanks friend!