Why Chickens Are Not Vegetarians
You’ve likely seen labels in your local grocery store touting chicken “fed an all-natural, vegetarian diet” and wondered if these products were as superior as they sound. This type of fancy marketing and greenwashing may lead people to believe that vegetarian-fed chickens are healthier and a more responsible food choice. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, it’s this type of misleading advertising that inspired us to start Pasturebird in the first place. When we began educating ourselves on our food choices, we realized just how misleading food labels can be. We stopped believing that we could trust most of the labels we found in the grocery store, and we wanted to be sure that we were consuming, and feeding our families, the highest quality and most ethically raised meat possible. During our efforts to educate ourselves about our food sources, we were dismayed to learn that many of the labels we had trusted in the past were intentionally misleading, and the meat we were consuming wasn’t nearly as nutritious or ethically produced as we thought.
Don’t Let the Labels Fool You
In order to be labeled organic, chickens must be fed a vegetarian diet, containing no animal products whatsoever. This requirement was put in place to avoid chickens being fed low-grade feed containing animal byproducts of unidentified origin, which are indeed harmful. But this overcorrection is a classic example of why it's so important to educate yourself. Restricting chickens to a diet containing zero animal products deprives chickens of essential nutrients. Chickens are, in fact, NOT vegetarians!
Chickens are natural omnivores, meaning that they eat both plant matter and insects, worms, and small animals. In fact, animal protein is essential to a chicken’s diet, and chickens that are fed a non-supplemented vegetarian diet will be lacking in essential nutrients such as methionine, an essential amino acid. Methionine is so important to a chicken’s health, that a deficiency in this nutrient will cause chickens to have poor or underdeveloped feathers, become infested with mites or parasites, and attack other chickens, drawing blood and likely spreading disease as well as harming other birds. Attacking other birds is likely a chicken’s desperate attempt to obtain animal protein that its body craves and requires.
In order to attempt to curb these issues, many producers of organic chickens will substitute their chickens’ feed with a synthetic source of methionine - but as you likely know from personal experience, when it comes to nutrition, synthetic substitutes are no match for real, whole-food nutrients! Not only are whole food nutrient sources naturally better, but when chickens are crammed together in close quarters, as non-pasture raised birds are (even the “organic” ones!), there is no way to make sure that each individual chicken is obtaining an adequate amount of feed, and thus, synthetic nutrients, to meet its nutritional needs. Bullying in the chicken coop (yes, this is a thing) can result in the strongest and most aggressive birds getting access to the most feed and water, and the less aggressive birds missing out on adequate food and essential nutrients.
Raising Vegetarian Chickens is not Healthier for Chickens, or Humans!
We know that as readers of this blog, you likely are as committed to ethical omnivorism and animal welfare as we are. If you’re taking the time to educate yourself about your food choices, chances are you strive to make the best food choices for yourself and your family. With all the clever and misleading labeling out there, it can sometimes be really difficult to know when you’re making the right choice. To add to the confusion, many of the large organic brands are the ones advertising “vegetarian-fed chicken”, for the reasons we outlined above. Many consumers think that by purchasing organic, they’re making a food choice that is healthier for themselves as well as the animal - but this just isn’t the case when it comes to vegetarian-fed chickens. Chickens are most certainly not vegetarians, but clever labeling does make it sound like purchasing products from vegetarian chickens is the responsible choice.
So what is an ethical consumer to do?
By eating pasture raised chicken and supporting the farmers who raise chickens on pasture, you’re not only making a healthier choice for your own nutrition, you’re also making the best possible choice for the chickens. When chickens are raised on pasture, they spend their days foraging for insects, worms, plants, seeds, and grasses. They obtain plenty of animal protein from natural, whole food sources that are vastly superior than nutrients obtained from synthetic sources. These natural food sources also contain high amounts of vitamins and essential fatty acids. By continuously foraging on new pasture, and with ample access to fresh air, sunshine, and nutrients that they obtain from a pasture raised lifestyle, pasture raised chickens have a better immune system (no need for routine antibiotics), an overall healthier existence, and are a much healthier meat source than their conventionally raised counterparts.
At Pasturebird, we allow our birds to live outside on pasture 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and allow them to use their beaks and talons to peck and scratch for bugs, worms, grasses, seeds, and more. To make sure they're given the most nutrients possible, they are also fed a supplemental diet of non-GMO corn and soy produced from a local mill. Because chickens are monogastric animals, they have a special organ called a gizzard which sprouts and stone grinds grains prior to consumption to make them nutritionally available. This gives the birds the most nutritionally robust diet available and also our bodies the ability to consume the most nutritionally robust chicken even for those who have gut sensitivities to these grains (like me). Allowing our chickens to forage on pasture (as chicken’s were meant to do) and supplementing this foraging with a high quality feed, ensures that our chickens are receiving the best of both worlds - they’re able to peck, scratch, and live their best chicken life, while also receiving a supplemental feed that contains extra nutrients to fill in the gaps.
It’s because of this varied and nutrient dense diet that Pasturebird chicken boasts fifty percent more vitamin A, D, and E than conventionally farmed chicken, as well as three times the omega 3s, and over twenty percent less saturated fat. The chickens’ varied food sources give their meat more nutrient density, and a much more complex and savory taste. In much the same way that humans benefit from a varied diet, chickens are much healthier too when fed a diet that consists of their natural food sources (which include animal products) and supplemented with a non-GMO chicken feed.