How to Pick the Best Chicken -- What Do 'Free Range' and 'Organic' Labels Really Mean?

Curious about what food labels really mean? Francis Lam, writing in Salon, gives a breakdown of the meaning of the words on packages of chicken. Here's some of what he found out:

Free range

"Free range", according to the official definition, means that "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." However, the definition of "outside" is very vague. Some producers just include a fenced-in section of open concrete in their grow-out houses.

Pastured

This means that the birds are actually kept in coops at night, but are left to forage on grass, seeds, and worms during the day. The result is more richly flavored meat and eggs, and a much more humane life for the birds.

Natural

This simply means that nothing has been added to the bird after slaughter, such as flavoring, brines, or coloring. It has nothing to do with how a bird is raised.

No hormones

Hormones are not allowed at all in chicken production by law, so labels saying "no hormones" are just pure marketing.

Air-chilled

The vast majority of chicken is chilled in chlorinated pools. Air chilling is avoids the chlorine dip.

Organic

"Organic" is a term with legal weight, and the USDA enforces it. For a chicken, it means that 100 percent of the feed -- except perhaps mineral supplements -- must have been grown in a field that has not been treated with chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides or genetically modified organisms for at least three years. Antibiotics are not allowed in the chicken-raising process, which means that the chickens can't be contained in the densely packed wing-to-wing operations that conventional producers use.

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