The Truth Behind the Labels
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between the labels claiming "Cage Free", "Free Range", "Organic", and/or "Natural"? You see these on all kinds of products now, not just chickens. You really see this on egg cartons as the egg industry wrestles with how to maintain that bucolic farm image in light of egg production reality.
Well, we hope to shed a little light on that in this small corner of the internet. We believe informed customers are smart customers, and smart customers make smart decisions. So... in the spirit of smart decisions, here is some information on a few of the more common labels.
First, a few words about the terms you will find in the following descriptions.
We refer to the long chicken houses as “chicken tunnels”. These chicken tunnels are the ones you’ve seen on TV. These are the long, narrow buildings with thousands of chickens inside on every square foot of floor space.
Click anything underlined for links to sources and photos.
This term conjures up images of green pastures, red barns, and white rail fences. But the definition of “Free Range”, taken from the USDA's website, states:
"Producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."
The farmer (or “producer” in the USDA lexicon) can define what “outside access” is. This generally means that chickens are still raised in a large poultry house with a small door leading to a fenced area where the chickens can go outside for a breath of fresh air. Most of these fenced in areas are just dirt, concrete or gravel and most of the chickens will not venture outside because the food and water are not there.
It is our opinion that there really is no difference between “free range” and the chicken raised in a standard chicken tunnel.
"Hormone Free" or "No Hormones Added"
Don’t pay more for this! Why would we say that? Well, the federal government prohibits the use of hormones for chicken and pork! The USDA doesn’t allow “hormone free” or “no hormones added” to be printed on poultry or pork. All chicken and pig raised and sold in the US is “hormone free” ... by law. We state “no hormones added", with a note about how federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones … because by not saying that, it’s conspicuously absent from our list. We want to make sure that there’s absolutely no confusion. We don’t add any hormones, but neither does any other producer or farmer who follows the law (most do, by the way).
We all want healthy food that’s produced safely. But having the “organic” name or certification doesn’t necessarily make it better or healthier for you to eat. It doesn't really address animal welfare like it should, either.
Yes, we just said that.
A farmer can buy “organic” fertilizers and “organic” pesticides and produce an “organic” crop. The only difference between organic and conventional chicken in most cases is the chicken was fed a sole ration of “organic feed”, no antibiotics were used, and the birds were allowed access to the outside (see “Free Range”). They are still raised in a chicken tunnel with thousands of other chickens.
Think we’re crazy? Go and pick up Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. He goes into great detail about what an “organic chicken” production model actually looks like. It’s simply a high risk game (because they cram thousands of birds together into a chicken tunnel without any antibiotics) that results in a higher cost of production, that results in a higher cost for the consumer… without one blade of green grass involved.
Here are some of the USDA organic standards for chicken…
"§205.236 Origin of livestock.
(a) Livestock products that are to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic must be from livestock under continuous organic management from the last third of gestation or hatching: Except, That:
(1) Poultry. Poultry or edible poultry products must be from poultry that has been under continuous organic management beginning no later than the second day of life."
Technically, the chicken can be bred from a “non-organic” breeder and still be considered “organic” after it hatches and lives two days.
It is our opinion that the big advantage for “organic” is the guarantee that the feed did not contain antibiotics. It does nothing to shape the conditions that the chicken was raised in.
This is one the most hotly debated issues in agriculture and pop culture right now.
GMO Labeling just barely failed to pass in Oregon, Washington, and California. Most people are aware of what GMO and Non-GMO is. We won’t litigate the issue for the billionth time here.
But is it really bad?
In the case of taking a gene from a completely different species and inserting it into another species to get a better result in growth is completely crazy in our opinion. We always ask “can it be done naturally” with issues like this? If not, then tread very, very carefully!
Inserting a bacteria or pesticide into a seed is also not a good idea, especially since one could conceptualize a way in which it works its way into the food chain.
Here’s where we are okay with genetic modification: Taking a gene of the same species and isolating it because of a quality characteristic (ie: disease resistant, superior growth, drought tolerance, etc) and inserting it into the same seed or plant of the same species to produce a superior plant. This is essentially what farmers have been doing for eons by selecting seeds from plants that have the desirable characteristics, but it is very, very slow. You are essentially speeding up a natural process in the lab.
So, is GMO good or bad? Well, you be the judge.
If you are buying chicken labeled as “non-GMO”, it means they were fed a sole ration of non-GMO feed. Those ingredients can still be sprayed with pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizer. Does that make it any better for you? In our opinion, if it’s labeled “non-GMO”, make sure it’s also organic so you avoid the pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
"Pasture-Raised" or "Pastured"
This is where we come in. This is how a chicken should be raised (in our opinion)!
“But wait! Your chicken are in cages! That’s no better than the chicken tunnel!”
Yes, they are in cages. But have you seen what a pack of coyotes or a hawk can do to a chicken? It’s not pretty! They are in these "cages" for their own safety and because these cages or “tractors” are moved daily to new paddocks of pasture. The chicken is forcibly introduced to fresh grass/weeds, bugs and dirt.
Some pasture-based operations allow their chickens to range freely in a pasture next to their fixed housing (this is called “day range”). The birds never go too far from their home, though, because it’s safe and the food and water is there. The pasture around those fixed buildings after a few days is mostly bare ground with hardly any grass or bugs to eat. The birds are most likely a little more stressed being on high alert for hawks and other predators overhead. This also creates a waste issue with the bedding that is used inside the fixed housing. This has to be dealt with (either spread out or composted).
Our tractors are only allowed 40 birds at a time max. This gives them plenty of room to flap their wings, run around, jump, and be a chicken without the coyote or hawk ruining their day. This also spreads out their droppings, which we put a monetary value on because it feeds our pasture! You should see them … acting like chickens! The ground is full of fresh weeds and bugs to nibble at. Their food and water is readily available. They have fresh air and shade. And Mr. Coyote is forced to move on down the road when he realizes he’s not getting inside the chicken wire.
Still have more questions? Contact us, or visit our "About" tab to read more about each animal!