Your Guide to Chicken Labels & What They Actually Mean

Whether you're shopping in a grocery store or your local farmers market, you've likely seen an array of labels on your chicken. They all sound great... But what are you actually getting when you choose "organic", "hormone-free" or "naturally-raised chicken"? What's the difference between "cage-free", "free-range" and "pasture-raised" chickens?

With this handy guide, we dive into what the labels actually mean (rather than what they imply), who regulates these labels, and which labels are more marketing ploy than anything else. As always, we recommend trusting your local farmer or meat purveyor for the most transparent and accurate information about your poultry purchase rather than a sticker on the package, so don't be shy. Onward!

speckled brown chicken walking in pasture with 3 other chickens in background

Organic

Regulated by the USDA, this label means that your chicken's feed does not contain any pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The chicken was also not given any antibiotics in its lifetime. The chicken must be free-range, however it's important to note that this label does not guarantee humane treatment of the flock.

Certified Humane (Raised and Handled)

There is no federal governing body that regulates the humane treatment of animals, and this label is regulated by third party certifications organizations, the most prominent being Human Farm Animal Care. HFAC clearly outlines the standards for how livestock animals should be raised in a humane way, from average distance to a watering source to the placement and construction of chicken perches. to HFAC declares their strict standards with scientific research in hand; all their farm inspectors have at least a masters degree or PhD in veterinary or animal science. They're also endorsed by several other humane organizations, as well as the ASPCA. Rest assured, a label with "Certified Humane" by HFAC is likely a very true sentiment to the great shelter, feed and space your chicken was given in its lifetime.

Antibiotic-free

Simple enough, these chickens are verified to have received absolutely no antibiotics in their lifetime. The claim is verified by the USDA, but it's important to note that the FDA also plays a major role in ensuring that no antibiotic residues are found in chickens offered to the public consumer.

Hormone-free

Chickens raised with the use of hormones is nothing new; in fact, it's been the law since 1950s when the FDA declared the use of hormones in raising chickens (and pigs) illegal. Injecting hundreds of chickens with hormones twice daily would be impractical for a farmer anyway, and those seemingly too-large 6 ounce chicken breasts are the result of nutrition plans, selective breeding and genetics (seriously, google "Chicken of Tomorrow" sometime!), not hormones. So, while it's nice to know that your chicken has not been given any hormones, it's really nothing special.

Free-Range

This label is regulated by the USDA and defined by the chicken's option for outdoor access. The big problem with this label is that it doesn't define a minimum amount that the chicken must share nor how chicken can access the outdoors... so a facility could feasibly install just one small hole through the side of his enclosure for the flock to pass through at their discretion. The label is ultimately misleading because the chicken may not have ever seen the light of day.

Pastured or Pasture-Raised

This label implies that an animal is given open access to a spacious outdoor pasture for the entirety of its life, but it's tricky because it's not really defined or regulated by the USDA or any other governing body. It's not as common as the "free-range" label, but loose working definitions imply the two to be roughly the same. Organizations like Humane Farm Animal Care and Animal Welfare Institute can offer third-party certifications for "pasture-raised" and other (somewhat vague) labels as they very clearly and passionately define the standards for how a chicken is raised.

Pasture-Raised Chicken Roasted with Zucchini, Tomatoes & Onions

Likewise, the suppliers themselves can define "pasture-raised" while allowing complete transparency to validate the claim; Marksbury Farm (where the pasture-raised whole chickens in your PeachDish meal kits come from) does exactly this - by defining their standards and allowing an "open-door" policy to consumers so they know they are getting chicken that was raised in the most humane way. Learn more about their standards by visiting their website.

Cage-Free

This label is actually used on packaging for eggs, not chicken, but it's worth noting as the term gets thrown around for both products. Chickens raised for meat aren't ever kept in cages! Both the FDA and USDA can verify the claim for egg-laying hens.

Farm-Raised

Plain and simple, this chicken was raised on a farm. You'll likely see this claim at the farmers market and on family-run restaurant menus in your town. It's more of a marketing term, and usually meant to imply that the chicken is coming from a local farm. Theoretically, all chickens could carry this label assuming they are all raised on farms.

Fed 100% Vegetarian Diet

Chickens are actually omnivores; in the wild, they feed on bugs and worms in addition to grains and grasses. By law, the FDA allows byproducts from livestock slaughter (yes, even chickens) to be used in feed for chickens (yikes!) but this label ensures that your chicken was only fed 100% vegetarian or grain feed. The USDA verifies these claims with a one-time application from producers... so be wary as the USDA may not keep them in check.

Natural and Naturally-Raised

The label "Natural" actually refers to way a chicken is processed rather than how it was raised. Regulated by the USDA, your "natural" chicken is free of artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or other chemical or synthetic additives. The label "Naturally-Raised" also exists, and means the livestock was raised with hormones, antibiotics, and with no animal byproducts in the feed. However, this label is only used for live animals.

Other Chicken Processing Labels to Know

Air-chilled: Chicken is cool is a special way that uses several air chambers and cool, purified air to enhance flavor and texture and reduce risk of contamination

Enhanced: Some producers "enhance" the flavor of their chicken by injecting with saltwater, chicken stock or other liquid seasoning. The process is called "plumping".

Added Water: See definition above for plumping - it results in the chicken containing "added water".

Kosher: This chicken adheres to Jewish religious dietary law.

a group of colorful chickens flocking together in an open pasture at jody's farm

SHOP WITH YOUR HEART

PeachDish is proud to stand with the ASPCA in advocating for better animal welfare. As a sustainable food company with a devotion to the community - both human and animal - we believe it is not only an opportunity but our responsibility to help improve animal welfare across the board. This is why, as of May 2019, we have committed to improving the lives of broiler chickens by meeting or exceeding Global Animal Partnership standards by 2024. When you choose PeachDish, you know you're getting good food from a food place. As always, we thank you for joining us for dinner and making a difference!

You can learn more about the Shop With Your Heart program and more by visiting the ASPCA website and follow @ASPCA on Twitter or Instagram!

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