Which Packaged Chicken Labels Actually Mean Something?
The chicken section at the local grocery store can leave one's head spinning. Free range, basted, vegetarian-fed, organic. What does it all mean?
In an attempt to take away a bit of the mystery, we've decoded the chicken labels you're most likely to find. Some have USDA-backed regulations, while others are simply marketing ploys. Scroll through to discover which ones are worth the extra money, and which are mostly marketing.
"Raised Without Antibiotics"
This means these chickens were never administered antibiotics. While there are no actual traces of antibiotics in poultry (to ensure this, the USDA requires a withdrawal period before birds are slaughtered), there is widespread agreement that antibiotic use on farms is contributing to antibiotic-resistant infections in people.
Organic chickens were raised according to comprehensive USDA specifications, which include eating organic feed. There may be environmental benefits, some (but not all) research shows organic farming can minimize pollution. However, organic chicken does not have any nutritional advantages, though we did find it to be more robust in flavor.
This means the birds were cooled by air rather than water during processing. Proponents of air-chilling claim the birds taste better (air-chilled birds do take on less water, which may concentrate flavor), but our taste testers couldn't detect a difference.
Although there's no official definition, the USDA requires claims to be "truthful and not misleading," so a label that says the chicken was "pasture-raised" should mean that the bird was in a pasture, weather permitting.
Want to get a sense of whether it was true? Look at the shape: Birds that spent more time moving around tend to have smaller breasts and legs that stick out a bit more than conventionally raised birds. This claim is a much better indication of outdoor access than "free-range" (see below).
This means, of course, that the chicken were not fed animal by-products.
But here's the thing: Chickens are omnivores. They like to (and should) eat lots of insects and bugs. but most consumers find it icky to imagine farmers feeding chickens leftover meat scraps. To appease shoppers, most have now switched to a corn and soy diet. If your chicken was pasture-raised, it may have at least had the opportunity to find some insects to eat.
This may also be described as "added water" or even "self-basted" What it means is that the chicken was injected with a flavor- or moisture-enhancing solution of salted water.
The FDA requires the amount of solution (as a percent of the weight of the bird) and the ingredients be labeled. The amount can be anywhere from a relatively modest 3% to 10% or more. Solutions generally contain as much as 300mg of sodium per 4-ounce serving, so check ingredient lists and sodium levels.
Though often less expensive, these chickens tend to have a spongy, mushy texture and artificial taste.
This term, which has become a catch-all for the whole anti-factory farming movement, actually doesn't mean that much. To be labeled free-range, the chicken must be "allowed access to the outside."
It doesn't mean the chicken actually uses that access. According to the National Chicken Council, chickens tend to "stay close to water and feed," which are often located indoors.
These are terms that sound good, but mean very little:
"No Added Hormones"
Hormones are not allowed for use in chicken (or pork) in the United States and have been banned since 1959. The law requires that whenever you see this label, elsewhere on the package it must say: "Federal regulation prohibits the use of hormones in poultry."
Products that use minimal processing and contain no artificial ingredients or added color can bear this label. Most meat products meet this definition, so it's basically meaningless. "Natural" is just there to make you feel better.
Meat chickens are not housed in cages. Egg-layers, however, are often kept in cages, so the cage-free label on egg cartons actually does bear meaning when buying eggs (These are the egg labels that mean something—and the ones you can ignore).