Hi Folks! Jason here from Leaning 7 Farms.
Have you ever strolled through the grocery store and seen all of the different descriptions for meats and wondered what it all means? I mean, what’s the difference between plain old run-of-the-mill chicken and organic, free-range, pasture-raised, etc? Throw in GMO-free and soy-free and the meat department can be down right confusing, right? Do these labels even matter or are they just distinctions without a difference?
This post should help un-muddy the water a bit. I’ll explain the management and production practices behind each of the common terms that you’re likely to encounter the next time you shop for chicken.
Factory Farmed Chicken
First let’s start with the basic stuff. Plain-old chicken in the grocery meat department. These are chickens that have been raised in confinement in "factory farms". They are kept inside huge grow-out houses that house 20,000 birds, averaging about 0.8 square feet per bird. This is only slightly more space than a sheet of letter paper. The growing conditions are carefully controlled to provide the maximum growth rate at a minimum cost. They're even kept in the dark most of the time because this encourages them to be still so they convert more calories to meat production. This system is optimized to produce meat cheaply. Of course, it's not a very pleasant life for the chickens being crowded into a huge, dark barn with the smell of ammonia from the soiled bedding increasing by the day. Also, this system of growing produces a fairly bland flavor profile because the birds don't have access to the outdoors where they would normally forage and eat bugs, grass, clover, and many other things. A complex forage diet adds complexity to the developing muscle and contributes to a better flavor profile and higher nutrient density.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined the term "free range" for chickens. For chickens to be free range, the birds must be "allowed access to the outside," according to the USDA. In practice, this can mean the chickens live most of their lives outdoors, retreating to their coop only when weather or other factors require them to do so, or it can mean the chickens spend all their time in cramped, indoor pens that have a small door opened to the outside for just a few minutes each day.
Obviously, there's a huge difference between these two scenarios in terms of the welfare of the chickens and ultimately in the effects that their growing environment has on the flavor and nutrient profiles of their meat, but either scenario meets the USDA definition.
Pasture-Raised ChickenPasture-raised chickens are "free-range", under the USDA definition. In addition, the "pasture-raised" label gives you the added confidence that the more idyllic view under the free range definition is actually how these chickens are being raised.
In practice, this can be accomplished in a variety of ways, depending on the characteristics of the chicken breed being raised. One of the most common methods, and the way that we raise our meat chickens at Leaning 7 Farms, is to use a large, mobile pen (sometimes called a "chicken tractor") that is moved onto new ground at least once a day. The back half of the pen has enclosed sides and the front and back are covered in poultry netting. Shade and protection from the weather is provided by lightweight plastic roofing panels that cover 3/4 of the top. If you're wondering what the chicken tractor looks like, I've included a picture of one of ours housing young turkeys.
Chicken tractor pens are great because they allow the chickens to be housed outside where they can eat bugs, scratch the ground, and all the things chickens love to do while being protected from predators and the elements. Meanwhile, this practice is great for the soil since the chickens are depositing a day's worth of droppings (fertilizer) and then are moving on before the droppings become overwhelming for the soil. Over time, this builds healthy soils with diverse microbial life. How cool is that!!?
What about other things you see on a chicken label? A common label that you'll notice in the supermarket is "organic". Organic simply means that the chicken was raised at a facility that has obtained USDA organic certification. This can be a factory-style farm, or a local farm practicing sustainable agricultural practices. Both can be certified organic. The idea behind organic certification is great. No non-organic pesticides are used on the feed, animals aren't dosed with hormones or antibiotics, every part of the production chain is checked and certified. If there's a downside to organic certification, it is that the system was designed with the large corporate farms in mind. The result, it's expensive to obtain certification, prohibitively so for most small farms. So don't assume that just because your local farm isn't organic certified that they're not following all of the practices that are practical for their scale. At Leaning 7 Farms, we fall into this category. We never administer medicated feed, even to chicks. We don't use hormones. We source a really high quality non-GMO feed that is milled in Norlina, North Carolina and sold by Country Farm and Home in Pittsboro, NC. The feed isn't organic-certified, but they use very high quality ingredients and we're happy to support these local businesses.
Non-GMO or GMO-free
Non-GMO or GMO-free simply means that feed provided to the animals doesn't contain any genetically-modified organisms (GMO). The most common sources of GMOs in most food, including animal feed, are corn and soybeans. Many people feel like the creation and use of GMO plants presents a great risk for our environment. Often times these plants are engineered to resist common herbicides. So of course, the growth of these crops encourages the use of herbicides. As mentioned, at Leaning 7 Farms we've committed to raising our chickens with non-GMO feed milled right here in North Carolina.
Grocery store chicken labels can sometimes be confusing. Understanding what each label means and how that impacts the quality and nutrient density of the meat will help you make the best and most healthy choices for you and your family. Often times you can find really high-quality chicken raised using sustainable agricultural practices from your local farms. This helps a small business and supports the local economy. If you live near Apex, Pittsboro, Cary, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina check out Leaning 7 Farms. A great way to stay up to date on our latest product availability is to join our newsletter below.