If you've ever stood in the supermarket wondering if paying more for chicken that is free-range, antibiotic-free, no hormones added, farm-raised, natural and organic is going to make you healthier, wealthier, wise -- or just a better person -- you're not alone.
Recently, as I was doubting myself on my chicken choices, I decided to get to the bottom of what all of this really means. It's not what I thought.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a cabinet-level agency that oversees the regulation of food-grade chicken and is responsible for the claims on packaging and labels.
And despite all of the hype and fluff, there is only one label -- organic -- that guarantees specific standards and for which you might consider paying more.
Briefly, here is what all of it means -- or doesn't mean -- according to the USDA.
There is no specific definition for free-range. For sure, it does not mean, "running free to forage for grubs and grain on acres of rolling green pastureland."
The USDA generally allows this term if chickens have access to the outdoors for at least part of the day, which could mean a matter of a few minutes, whether that chicken chooses to go outdoors or not.
A single open door at one end of a huge chicken warehouse meets this definition of free-range. Even so, "Less than 1% of chickens nationwide are raised free-range," according to the National Chicken Council.
This means not housed in cages. It does not mean roaming happily in large open areas. Cage-free can mean crammed together in an indoor henhouse and given very little room to breathe and be their naturally born chicken selves.
Under USDA regulations, a "natural" product has no artificial ingredients or added color. Most ready-to-cook chicken can be labeled "natural" if processors choose to do so.
NO HORMONES ADDED
This label is meaningless because federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in chicken. Period.
Any cut or brand of chicken can be labeled "raised without hormones."
However, if the processor chooses to say that on the label, it must also clearly state that no hormones are used in the production of any poultry allowed for consumption in the U.S.
ANTIBIOTIC-FREE (OR RAISED WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS)
This means that the flock was raised without the use of products classified as antibiotics for animal health maintenance, disease prevention or treatment of disease.
But why mention this on the label? All processed chickens in the U.S. must be "antibiotic-free" in the sense that no antibiotic residues are allowed to be present in the meat.
MADE IN THE USA
Nearly all chickens and chicken products sold in the U.S. come from chickens hatched, raised and processed in the U.S. An exception is a small number imported from Canada, which has food safety and quality standards equal to the U.S.
The USDA has a very specific rule to define "organic" production and prohibits the use of the term "organic" on the packaging of any food product not produced in accordance with its rule.
Organic chicken means that 100% of the chicken feed was grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides and other genetically modified organisms for at least three years.
According to USDA, the organic label does not indicate that the product has safety, quality or nutritional attributes that are any higher than conventionally raised chicken.