Americans love chicken. It's the most popular meat (2015 hit an average consumption of 90 pounds per person) because it's lean, quick cooking, reliable, and affordable. Yet despite what you think you know about this go-to bird, you may be surprised (as we were) to learn there's no evidence that organic chicken is any more nutritious than conventional. So what exactly are you paying for when you pay a higher premium?
Credit: Photo Courtesy of Global Animal Partnership

There are two kinds of chicken: There’s chicken, the meat, and there’s chicken, the bird. Most of us are pretty familiar with chicken, the meat—the bird, we don’t know so well, and the kind of chicken you eat probably doesn’t match the “chicken” picture in your head.

The chicken you eat—called a “broiler” in no-nonsense industry parlance—starts life looking a lot like other chickens: small, cute, yellow, and fuzzy. But within the first week, you notice differences. The broilers eat voraciously, and you can practically watch them grow. There’s also lots and lots of poop.

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By the time they’re just a couple weeks old, they take on their characteristic shape: a big breast jutting forward over wide-set legs. And it’s that shape that determines their characteristic behavior, which involves a lot of sitting around, and their characteristic gait, which is awkward and lumbering. They are not long on charm.

Broilers have one job: grow. And grow they do. I’ve raised both broilers and egg-layers, and by the time the chicks are a month old, they look like different species. The broilers already weigh 2 pounds or more, and they’re tippy and ungainly, proportioned more like a softball than a chicken. By the time the broilers are 7 weeks old, they weigh between 6 and 7 pounds, and are ready to be slaughtered. At that age, a laying hen is closer to 2 pounds.

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There are a lot of different ways to raise that broiler, ranging from the farm of our collective imagination, with the green pasture and the red barn, to the farm of the horror videos, with sick and mistreated birds crowded into a dark chicken house.

Most are somewhere in between. But when you choose a chicken at the grocery store, how do you know where it came from? What’s important about those farms, when it comes to your health and the chicken’s well-being? With so many labels making so many claims, how on earth are you supposed to decide?

Chickens and Your Health

Let’s get one thing out of the way: There are some very important differences in that poultry case, but your health is not at issue. No chicken at your market is any better for you—or any worse—than any other. There aren’t hormones, or steroids, or antibiotics in any of them, and none is more or less likely to make you sick. No chicken in that case is any more healthful or nutritious than any other. That doesn’t mean they’re identical: A pasture-raised chicken has a slightly different composition than a grain-fed chicken, but those differences aren’t significant enough to have an impact on your health. The differences may affect taste, but whether the taste is better or worse is for you to decide.

The differences in poultry aren’t about you. They’re about the chicken. To understand them, let’s start in a chicken house.

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Inside the Chicken House

The National Chicken Council, a nonprofit industry group, arranged for me to visit 3 Sons Poultry in Snow Hill, North Carolina, which grows chickens for Sanderson Farms, the third-largest U.S. poultry producer (Tyson is number one, Pilgrim’s is two, Perdue is four). The farmer, Brooks Edmondson, has 1,200 acres of what used to be tobacco and is now corn, soybeans, and wheat. He and his wife, Stacy, are relatively new to chicken farming, having signed on with Sanderson in 2010, and now rely on the diversification the birds bring to the farm. Unlike their crops, “chickens don’t depend on sunshine and rain,” Edmondson says.

Each of the eight chicken houses cost about $250,000 and was built to Sanderson specifications. They’re about half the size of a football field, and each houses 30,000 chickens—a little less than one square foot per bird. They have systems to feed and water the birds, and ones to heat, cool, and ventilate the space. The conditions are continuously monitored, and Edmondson also monitors his flocks the old-fashioned way: by visiting each house several times a day.

Inside, the first thing you notice is the dimness; the birds get 6.5 hours of darkness every day, and artificial lighting the rest of the time. The second is the smell. It’s not a terrible smell—it’s birds and feed and poop—but it’s quite assertive. And then you look at the birds.

They looked healthy, alert, and clean. Some were curious and came over to inspect the cadre of visitors. Others kept their distance. These were 28 days old and weighed about 2.5 pounds each, and there were an awful lot of them—but there was enough space for them to move around, get feed, and even do the chest-bumping that chickens do as they establish dominance. Because the house is kept dry, the poop essentially disappears into the 4 to 6 inches of litter that covers the house’s clay floor. All in all, I’d have to say Edmondson’s 30,000 birds looked a little bit better than the 15 my husband and I raised in our backyard in a roomy outdoor pen with sunshine. (There are videos of houses very much like Edmondson’s at the National Chicken Council’s website.)

But of course Edmondson’s farm was well-run; the (extremely helpful) National Chicken Council people wouldn’t have taken me to one that wasn’t. But everyone admits that the bad farms, the ones that star in the horror videos, exist. When I asked the Sanderson people who came with me to the farm whether they’d been on those farms, they all nodded. How am I—or the average consumer, staring down the poultry case—to know what’s the norm? Is it this good farm, or those bad farms?

Edmondson says there’s one very good reason to trust that the good farmer is the norm: if you’re a bad farmer, you don’t make money. “The more comfortable they are, the more they weigh.” Healthy birds grow and thrive. Sick birds don’t.

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Which is not to say that he doesn’t care about the birds for their own sake. In my experience of farmers, they are attuned to (and very concerned about) pain, discomfort, or distress in their livestock. While I don’t have access to Edmondson’s innermost thoughts, I have every reason to believe him when he says he is repelled by those videos showing mistreatment and cruelty. But the fact that a chicken farmer’s financial incentives align with the birds’ interest is probably the best assurance consumers have that most chickens are at least moderately well cared for. Animal scientist Kirk Klasing, a professor at the University of California, Davis, has been on a lot chicken farms and confirms that conventional chicken houses are fairly consistent.

Klasing stresses that the determinant of a chicken’s quality of life isn’t on the label. It isn’t whether the chicken is conventional or organic, free-range or indoor. The key to an animal’s well being is in the farm’s management, not in its style. “You can have good quality of life in many kinds of systems,” he says.

So What’s a Consumer to Do?

Although the labels don’t tell you everything, if you know how to decode them you can learn an awful lot about the bird.

The first step is knowing which labels to ignore, and there are an awful lot of them. “Natural,” “hormone-free,” and “farm-raised” may sound good, but they can all be applied to every chicken in the market. “Natural” doesn’t have an official definition, and just means “minimally processed.” No chickens are given hormones because they’re prohibited, and all chickens are raised on farms.

Credit: John E. Kelly

“Cage-free” and “free-range” don’t help either. Standard operating broiler farm procedure is large barns with no cages; it’s egg-layers that are raised in cages, so the “cage-free” label is only meaningful when it’s on an egg carton. “Free-range” just means the bird has access to the outdoors, which can mean a door in the side of the barn that birds rarely use.

“Vegetarian diet” tells you that there are no animal by-products in the feed but, according to Klasing, that’s mostly to make consumers feel better. Anyone who’s ever watched a chicken go after an insect knows they’re bloodthirsty little meat eaters at heart, though they can thrive on those well-balanced vegetarian diets. (Klasing points out that the push for vegetarian feed for chickens conveniently coincided with the push for “all-meat” diets for dogs, so those animal by-products made their way into pet food.)

When you shop for chicken, start by mentally crossing out all the above labels. What’s left are the few that are important, starting with the one you’re most likely to see: “Raised without antibiotics.”

Antibiotic-free Chicken

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Antibiotics aren’t bad for the bird, and there aren’t traces of them in the meat (the FDA requires a withdrawal period before chickens are slaughtered so the drugs are out of their system). The problem is that antibiotic use in livestock contributes to the rise of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Those bacteria can then infect humans, and the infections are very difficult to treat. According to the Centers for Disease Control, two million Americans each year get infections that are resistant to antibiotic treatment, and 23,000 of them die. When you choose chicken raised without antibiotics, you’re choosing to help solve that problem.

Klasing points out that taking antibiotics out of chicken farming can mean that birds get sick. “Antibiotics allow birds to be healthier,” he says, although the goal of decreasing use is important. “We’re trading animal health and welfare for human health and welfare.” Sanderson Farms, the producer that 3 Sons Poultry grows birds for, does not raise birds without antibiotics, citing those welfare concerns.

Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president at Perdue Farms, doesn’t believe that’s always the trade-off. Perdue was among the earliest to cut back on antibiotic use. “We started this in 2002,” he says, and emphasizes that “you can’t run the same program the same way and just pull the antibiotics.” Management practices must change, and some of the strategies they’ve used to keep birds healthy without antibiotics include using pro- and prebiotics and increased use of vaccines.

Stewart-Brown acknowledges that keeping antibiotic-free flocks healthy is tricky, and they have had to address problems they might not even have known about had they not taken the drugs out of the system. “We started to find houses that were not performing well,” he says. “It led us to working with farmers on houses that might be a little bit wet, that might be difficult to ventilate.”

Because Perdue sells both chicken raised with antibiotics and those without, the company always has the option (which Stewart-Brown considers an obligation) to treat sick animals. If a flock requires antibiotics, it gets them, and those birds are labeled accordingly.

The issue gets complicated when you look at types of antibiotics. There is a class of drugs, ionophores, that are antibiotic but aren’t used in people, and may be less likely to contribute the problem of antibiotic resistance. Pilgrim’s has pledged that 25% of its chickens will be raised without any antibiotics, including ionophores, by 2019, and is working to end all use of human antibiotics. Tyson has pledged to remove antibiotics used in humans from all its chickens by September 2017.

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Perdue has already eliminated human antibiotics, and the majority of their chickens get no antibiotics of any kind. Sanderson Farms, by contrast, is the only one of the top four producers planning to continue antibiotic use. “We do not plan to withdraw antibiotics from our program,” says their website.

Birds raised without antibiotics cost a little more, and that cost is passed on to the consumer. But the price difference is likely to be small, making the decision to buy antibiotic-free chicken easier than a decision based on other labels, which may increase the price by a lot—even doubling or tripling it. What are you getting when you buy an organic chicken, a pasture-raised chicken, or a bird with a third-party welfare certification? All of those labels are meaningful, but they may not mean exactly what you think.

Organic Chicken

Credit: Photo: Courtesy of USDA

Let’s start with organic. Nate Lewis is senior crops and livestock specialist with the Organic Trade Association, and he stresses what he calls the “upstream effects” of organic poultry. Organic chickens eat organic feed (and get organic bedding), and organic feed is grown to standards that prohibit synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and are non-GMO. The crops are grown with practices designed to improve soil health, like cover cropping and crop rotation. The environmental impact of organic vs. conventional crops is, like so many issues in food, hotly debated, but if the soil-centric approach and prohibition of synthetics is why you buy organic produce, buying organic chicken makes perfect sense. (Organic birds are also raised without any antibiotics.)

The organic label tells you less about the life of the chicken than it does about those upstream effects. An organic bird is required to have access to the outdoors and an environment allowing it to express natural behaviors but, according to Klasing, those are very vague standards. “Organic rules are written in general terms. You can do very little and meet the standard,” he says. Lewis concurs. The outdoor access rule is no more strict than the USDA’s requirement for “free-range.” And as for expressing natural behaviors, “what the heck does that mean?” Lewis asks.

Because the rules are vague, Klasing says that the welfare standards on organic farms vary much more than the standards on conventional farms, which are more tightly controlled. “I see some organic farms that are really excellent, and some that are way worse than conventional systems,” he says.

But change is in the offing, says Lewis. There has been pressure within the organic community to tighten those rules, “a reaction to the fact that most organic poultry producers need to get additional certifications to meet their customers’ expectations.” Watch this space.

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Pasture-raised Chicken

Meanwhile, there is a label that does mean the chicken spends time outside: pasture-raised. While there isn’t a USDA definition, the agency requires that descriptions like that be “truthful and not misleading.” But here, too, the key is the management and not the label. I’ve been on farms that raise chickens on pastures that look like they’re straight out of a picture book. But there was also that one farm with sickly, listless birds, some clearly injured, languishing in chicken tractors (mobile chicken coops that allow birds to graze) that clearly weren’t being moved around very much.

And this is where third-party certifications come in. You’ve probably seen them: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, and Global Animal Partnership (GAP) 5-Step Program are some of the most common. To get this kind of certification, a farm has to be audited and must meet certain standards of humane treatment. Environmental enrichments like straw bales to jump on or hide behind, sufficient space per bird, and genuine time outdoors are elements of some of the certifications.

At this point, you’re probably tired of hearing “it depends” when all you want to know is whether you should buy a chicken with one of these labels. An organization against factory farming called Farm Forward recommends three of them: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, and GAP Steps 2-5. The others, they say, have such minimal criteria that you should ignore them.

Farm Forward CEO Aaron Gross acknowledges that certifying humane treatment is an inexact undertaking. “Science can’t tell you whether it’s humane or not,” he says. How much space, exactly, does a bird need? Is a bird that lives indoors inherently less happy than a bird that goes outdoors? Is a slower-growing bird that moves more also a more fulfilled bird? We don’t have ironclad answers to any of those questions, but Gross and Farm Forward—and a lot of other welfare advocates—contend that we’re required to give it our best shot.

One particular focus of Farm Forward, GAP, and Whole Foods is a move to go back to basics on broilers, and reverse some of the changes that created the fast-growing, oddly proportioned birds that are now standard, but have led to lameness, heart problems, and decreased mobility. Within the next eight years, GAP will require slower-growing birds for certification for all step levels.

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What You Can Do Now

If you’re looking for a chicken for tonight’s dinner, though, there are two ways you can ensure you’re getting a bird raised to standards that meet yours. The first is to look for the meaningful labels: raised without antibiotics, organic, and third-party humane certification. If you’re looking for a slower-growing bird, or one that spent a lot of time moving around, look at the shape. The round birds with legs that tuck in easily are conventionally raised broilers, and birds with smaller breasts and legs that stick out probably aren’t.

The second, of course, is to know your producer. It’s not possible for everyone; how could Brooks Edmondson possibly know all the people who eat the million-plus chickens he grows? But Lyle Johnston, director of live production for Coleman Natural Foods, Perdue’s organic label, wants his buyers to come to his farms. “They have to be the ones to tell the story to the consumer,” he says.

Johnston’s is a story of birds that do go outside, that do have enrichments, that are both organic and GAP-certified. But Brooks Edmonson, too, has a story worth telling, and he has changed people’s minds with tours of his farm, when consumers arrive with horror stories top of mind and see, instead, responsible stewardship and commitment to healthy birds. Farmers are best at telling those stories, but labels can help. Come dinnertime, the best thing you can do is buy the chicken you have confidence in.