Organic Chicken Versus Pasture Raised Chicken
Sometimes, deciphering food labels can seem like trying to learn another language. Keeping up with the latest buzzwords, educating yourself on the real meaning behind food labeling, and working towards being a conscious consumer, these things are not easy! Particularly if you’re new to learning about where your food comes from and how it is grown or processed, this can seem really overwhelming. What makes it even harder is that these days, it can be difficult to know which labels you can trust and which labels are just clever marketing tactics.
When you hear the term “organic”, you likely think that you’re getting the best of the best when it comes to food products. According to Merriam-Webster, “organic” is defined as: of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides. In theory, this definition sounds pretty encouraging, and indeed, when it comes to organic produce, chances are you’re getting a higher quality product, particularly if you buy organic and locally-grown produce.
Why You Should Be Wary of Organic Chicken
When it comes to organic meat and poultry, the organic label isn’t quite so cut and dry. This label may be particularly misleading if you are buying organic meat in the hopes that you’re supporting an industry that emphasizes animal welfare. While organic chicken is definitely healthier for humans due to the absence of chemicals and pesticides, it’s not necessarily healthier for the chickens. According to Consumer Reports, “In order to be labeled “USDA Organic,” the chicken had to have been fed not just a vegetarian diet, but a diet that does not include any genetically modified ingredients or toxic synthetic pesticides. It also means that antibiotics can not be used for anything other than medically necessary antibiotics.” While the absence of GMOs and toxic pesticides in the chicken feed is an improvement over what is fed to conventionally raised chickens, the requirement that organic chickens be fed a vegetarian diet actually goes against a chicken’s natural diet! This requirement exists to avoid chickens being fed feed that contain nasty animal byproducts, but goes too far in the other direction. Chickens are not naturally meant to eat a vegetarian diet, and forcing them to do so is depriving them of nutrients crucial to their health and development.
According to an article from the Washington Post, feeding chickens a vegetarian diet can actually be detrimental to their health. They become deficient in an essential amino acid, which can make them ill, and their natural instinct for meat can actually cause them to turn on each other in search of these nutrients. When chickens are confined in small spaces near each other, this combination can be disastrous. And if you assume that organic chickens are afforded a humane living space, think again. As part of the research for the Washington Post article, the author consulted a paper written by Paige M. Tomaselli, Esq. and Lisa J. Bunin, Ph.D., and published by the Center for Food Safety. The article outlines how prevalent confinement practices are, even in organic facilities:
Little do consumers know that unnatural lighting conditions, tight stocking rates, few and small doors leading to the outside, cement porches instead of pasture, and limited-to-no access to the natural environment currently represent the norm.
How is Pasture Raised Chicken Different?
The paper written by Tomaselli and Bunin outlines exactly why raising chickens on pasture makes such a difference, both to the chickens and to the humans who consume them. Unlike chicken with an “organic” label, pasture raised chickens are raised the way that chickens are naturally meant to be raised, foraging on pasture, pecking and scratching for their food, and eating a diet full of insects, worms, seeds, and grasses that not only provide them with the nutrients they need to be healthy, but make their meat healthier for human consumption as well.
The paper outlines the nutritional superiority of pasture raised chicken that we have talked about so frequently on this blog, including the high amounts of vitamins A, D, and E, increased omega 3 essential fatty acids, and lower saturated fat content.
Another important distinction between “organic” and pasture raised is that in order to be labeled organic, chickens must be provided access to the outdoors…but there is no specification regarding how large the outdoor area is, how easy it is for the chickens to reach the outdoor area, or how much time the chickens must spend outdoors. Similar to “free range”, which we’ve discussed in the past, chickens merely need to be able to theoretically access the outdoors to be labeled organic, not spend any meaningful amount of time outdoors.
Pasture raised chickens, on the other hand, must be provided with 108 square feet of outdoor space, per chicken. They must be outdoors for at least 6 hours per day, and be given access to fresh pasture. At Pasturebird, we take our standards even further. Our chickens are on pasture 24/7, in a large moveable coop that is rotated to fresh pasture daily. Our chickens are protected from predators and inclement weather while still enjoying constant access to fresh air, sunlight, and nutrient-rich pastureland.
While it can seem disheartening at first to learn that many of the food labels you felt so comfortable with aren’t what they seem (trust us, we’ve been there - it’s why we started this company), the more educated you are about your food choices, the more empowered you’ll feel. Once you educate yourself about the various food labels and agricultural practices, you can make informed choices that are better for you, the animals, and the environment. The good news is, sustainable and humane food choices such as pasture raised chicken and eggs, and grassfed beef, milk, and butter are becoming more and more prevalent and readily available as consumers take more of an interest in where their food comes from, support local farms and farm-to-door companies such as Pasturebird, and demand healthier and more humane food choices in their supermarkets.