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What's a Free-Range, Cage-Free Chicken Anyway?

Chicken is a simple food, but its labels are anything but. Here are some tips to navigating the world of mass-produced poultry.

The night I butchered my first and only chicken, its body still warm from the summer sun, I told my friend how much it had meant to me to be able to see the other side of dinner. He nodded in agreement: "That's why I do this," he said simply, his waving arm taking in the garden, the chicken run, the wall of homeschooling materials. 

"We can study chickens all day long, but in the end, what matters is that my children understand -- this animal was sitting over there eating bugs, and now it's sitting on the table and we're eating it.  It gives them a healthy respect for life and death."

This healthy respect recently led Salon's Francis Lam to eschew chicken, not altogether, but the kind that are crammed into tiny wire cages and fed until they almost burst, never seeing the light of the sun or feeling the thrill of pecking a beetle out of a crack in the earth.

Of course we'd all like to feel good about the food we feed our families. The trouble is it's a lot more complicated than it used to be.  Even a simple act, like purchasing a chicken to roast for Sunday dinner, requires a fair amount of knowledge and patience for ethically-minded shoppers.  So here's a brief guide:


There are a number of terms that usually apply to chicken, but here are the top five with some brief explanations:

Organic: This is the most clearly-defined label, since it's sanctioned by the USDA and enforced through scheduled and random inspections.  Any chicken bearing the "organic" label must be fed organic feed, which means it isn't grown with pesticides or genetic modifications. It also means the animals have not received antibiotics, which is a common treatment for the diseases that plague flocks of birds raised in cramped quarters, so chances are good it had more room than most in which to grow up.  Also, organic chickens must be "free-range," which might make you wonder . . . 

Free-Range: What exactly is free-range?  The term technically means only that the birds have access to the outdoors.  So, yes, it's possble the farm keeps them in deplorable conditions but opens a tiny door to alow them outside for 15 minutes a day.  Chances are it's a little better than that, but there's really no telling.

Pastured: Although also not enforced, this label implies the chickens spent some time in the outdoors, doing what they do best: hunting bugs, munching grass and needling each other.

Cage-Free: This is one of the most disturbing and misleading terms out there. "Cage-Free" implies that the chickens are given a large area in which to roam happily, but all it means is that the chickens literally don't have cages.  They are often crammed together in an indoor henhouse and given very little room to breathe or be their chicken selves.

Natural: This is by far the most meaningless label in the modern food production industry. One of my favorite stories concerns carmine, a bright red dye used in many fruit juices.  It's made from the ground-up bodies of beetles.  But technically, beetles are natural, i.e. not produced in a lab -- hence the natural label!


In The Omnivore's Dilemma () Michael Pollan receives a revelation after eating brined, smoked chicken from a farm that uses traditional methods of growing and husbandry. While musing about the fact that the chickens tasted so deliciously chickeny, he decides that they are so true to form because they've been allowed to follow their natural instincts -- in other words, to act like chickens.

I can say from experience that pastured, organic chickens taste a lot better. However, because they're allowed to move around, they tend to be a little tougher and drier; be sure to keep them submerged if you're stewing them, and baste frequently for a roasted meal.


Here's where the rubber meets the road: it varies a great deal.  Since we can't infinitely sustain the market for boneless chicken tenderloin, it's a more responsible choice to buy a whole chicken and eat it for several days: roasted first, then chopped into chicken salad or .

Regular old factory-farmed chicken can be as cheap as $1-2 per pound. Organic is about twice that, depending on the institution, and truly pasture-raised chicken can run $6 per pound or even more.  If you're cooking for a dozen, the meal could get expensive awfully rast.

Bottom Line

It's hard to trust a nameless, faceless corporation, which is why (as with any other food item) the most foolproof way to find out how their animals are raised is simply to go and check out the animal pens.  If the farm refuses you entrance, that's telling on its own, but in most cases they're happy to have customer visits that will probably bring them more business!


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