Pasture Raised vs Organic vs Free Range Chicken, Which Is Best?

Purchasing animal-based products can be tricky because of their link to climate change and other ethical problems, and poultry is no exception here! Many of us have spent more time than we’d like to admit trying to decipher between all of the different eco-labels on poultry at the grocery store. “Free range”, “organic”, “pasture-raised”, and “cage-free”... What is the difference, and which one is better to buy?

Knowing where our food comes from and what all these different labels and certifications mean (as well as which greenwashed ones to avoid) can allow us to make more informed decisions while we shop. Let’s get started!

What’s the problem with conventional chicken?

Before diving into what our options are when buying poultry, we first need to discuss why this matters in the first place. There are two main things to consider when talking about more eco-friendly poultry, the first is animal welfare.

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The ethics

In the 1920s, the average commercially farmed chicken weighed only 2.5 pounds and for context, we had to feed a U.S. population of 115 million people. Today the U.S. population has reached 320 million! People also consume much more meat in their diets than they used to. With these factors combined, farmers and producers have been feeling the pressure to keep up with the growing demand and remain competitive in the market.

This discrepancy has led farmers and producers to adopt new ways to raise more and larger animals and depending on who you ask, these methods haven't always been the most humane. For example, we started to introduce growth hormones to the birds (in areas outside of the US), we limited or took away their access to the outdoors, and placed them in more confined living spaces like battery cages. These battery cages are often only 67 square inches in size, and this is where the animal might spend its entire life…

When thinking about animal welfare and poultry, it’s important to remember that it really depends on where your chicken comes from. For example, 99% of all meat produced in the U.S. comes from factory farms, which are more likely to have poor living conditions. Smaller scale local farms, which make up the remaining 1%, are known to be generally better.

The environment

The second thing to consider is how the methods by which conventional chickens are raised and transported might impact the environment and climate change.

Although chicken has a much lower carbon footprint than beef (by over 6 times in fact), it's still not amazing in terms of its environmental footprint. One serving of chicken, or four ounces, produces 1.39 kg of CO2e and 17.8 gallons of water. To put this into context, if you ate one serving of chicken every day for a year, that would be like using up 57 gallons of gas or taking a shower for 43 hours - and that is just for one person.

The impact becomes even larger when you consider that farmed chicken makes up 70% of all birds on earth! Asking consumers to shift a diet completely away from poultry simply isn’t logical or realistic. All this leaves us asking…

Pasture Raised vs Organic vs Free Range Chicken

What is organic chicken?

According to WholeFoods, chicken farms must meet four specific standards in order to be considered “organic”. 

  • All animals must be raised “organically” no later than two days after hatching,
  • After the two-day benchmark, they must be fed organic feed (free from animal bi-products, chemicals, or antibiotics) for the remainder of their lives,
  • The animals cannot be given any hormones or drugs of any kind (the US Food and Drug Administration has forbidden the use of hormones in the US),
  • The animals should have access to the outdoors.

These farms must also be inspected on an annual basis by a third party to make sure these standards are continuously being met.

What certification(s) do I need to look for when shopping for organic chicken?

USDA Organic: this is one of the most common organic labels to look for when shopping. USDA Organic-certified poultry is only given antibiotics when sick and is never given hormones. They also have a vegetarian diet with no added preservatives, GMOs, or other chemicals.

However, USDA certification does not require pasture access or welfare considerations to be taken into account during slaughter.

But like all things eco-friendly, there are some pros and cons to consider:

PROS

  • With fewer antibiotics and pesticides, organic chicken is healthier for us, the animals, and our environment.
  • The demand for organic products is growing (by 20% a year), so organic chicken fits in with the shifting demand of the current market.

CONS

  • Organic does not necessarily mean the animals were raised fully outdoors.
  • Organic feed cost more for farmers and producers and is harder to find.
  • Chicken with premium labels can be more expensive for consumers at the grocery store.
  • Organic meat is known to have a shorter shelf life and a higher risk of salmonella.

What is pasture-raised chicken?

Like the name sounds, pasture-raised chicken is a chicken that was raised in a pasture covered with grass and other plants that is at least 108 sq feet of outdoor space. Pasture-raised chickens are able to bop around and peck the ground for seeds, worms, and other grains from the soil. Their waste is also able to fertilize the soil, rather than fall from one cage to another like we have seen many times with factory farming.

What certification(s) do I need to look for when shopping for pasture-raised chicken?

Certified Humane: Since there is no legal definition for either term in the U.S., Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) has standards for products that are labeled Certified Humane® “free range” or “pasture-raised”. For a product to be labeled HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Pasture Raised”, the requirement is 1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird) and the fields must be rotated. The chickens must also be outdoors year round with mobile or fixed housing so they can protect themselves from bad weather or predators.

PROS

  • The animals have space to roam and explore and are usually healthier and happier due to the nutrient biodiversity found in the soil and their diet.
  • The meat consumed by humans tends to also be healthier and according to Pasture Bird, pasture-raised chicken is “shown to have three times the omega-3s, 50 percent more vitamin A, D, and E, and 21 percent less saturated fat”.
  • There is a lower feed cost for farmers if their chickens are foraging for food.

CONS

  • The animals might get lost or eaten by predators.
  • It can be harder for producers to adhere to biosecurity standards when chickens are raised outdoors (they might come into contact with rodents, diseases, wild birds, etc.).
  • Chicken with premium labels can be more expensive for consumers at the grocery store.

What is free-range chicken?

Free-range chicken is slightly different. Unlike Pasture-raised, “free-range” implies that while chickens have access to the outdoors, there are no regulations on how much access they have (their outdoor access could literally be through a hole in the wall). Because of this, “free-range” is one of the most greenwashed labels out there! Many companies label their chickens as free-range when in reality, they rarely go outside.

What certification(s) do I need to look for when shopping for free-range chicken?

Certified Humane: For a product to be labeled HFAC’s Certified Humane® “Free Range”, the space requirement is 2 sq. ft. per bird and they must be outdoors for at least 6 hours a day.

Free-range chicken also has some pros and cons:

PROS

  • Animals have access to the outdoors (farm-dependent).
  • If the chickens are foraging, this can also bring feed costs down for farmers.
  • Like pasture-raised, there are also health benefits to chickens and humans by allowing the animals to have outdoor access (this is once again dependent on how much access they have).

CONS

  • There is no regulation in the market on the amount of outdoor access the animals have to be labeled “free-range”.
  • Lack of regulation leads to A LOT of greenwashing.
  • Chicken with premium labels can be more expensive for consumers at the grocery store.

What is cage-free chicken?

Cage-free chicken (oftentimes used interchangeably with “free roaming chicken”)  is probably the broadest term on this list. “Cage-free” implies that the chickens do not live in cages and likely have access to perches or dust bathing areas. But this doesn't mean there is high animal welfare in its place since most “cage-free” flocks still never see the light of day.

What certification(s) do I need to look for when shopping for cage-free chicken?

Certified Humane: HFAC also has set standards on products labeled “cage-free”. Under this label, all chickens must have access to all levels of their housing system at all times, and battery cages and any other form of confinement is prohibited.

Cage-free chicken has more cons than pros:

PROS

  • Animals may have access to the outdoors (farm dependent),
  • The animals can move around and display “normal” chicken behaviors.

CONS

  • The animals probably do not have any access to the outdoors and often still live in overcrowded conditions since there is no square foot per chicken requirement, 
  • Like conventionally raised chickens, cage-free chickens often have their beaks burned off (this process is known as debeaking and is to prevent the animals from harming themselves or each other while being crowded together),
  • Chicken with premium labels can be more expensive for consumers at the grocery store.

Tips for shopping for healthier chicken

Last but not least, we need to talk about tips for shopping for poultry at farmers' markets and conventional grocery stores.

1. It's all about labeling!

Now that you know what each kind of label means and what certifications to look for, you can make better choices next time you shop for chicken. Remember, cage-free does not mean cruelty-free. And just because chickens might be labeled “organic” that doesn’t mean they have access to the outdoors in any capacity worth getting excited about.

Pro tip: “all-natural” does not mean organic! This label is very vague and simply means the chicken was minimally processed (with no dyes, coloring, or flavoring). That is ALL.

2. “Fresh” is best

“Fresh” poultry might seem a bit weird to see at the grocery store, isn’t it all fresh? Well, “fresh” means that the chicken has never been frozen or refrigerated below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. This chicken will generally taste better and won’t have the contamination risks that come with defrosting.

Pro tip: Always eat your “fresh” poultry within a day or two of purchasing it. And be sure to pass on the chicken nuggets and patties in the freezer aisle!

3. Grocery stores vs. farm markets vs. butcher shops

Where you decide to buy your poultry matters too! Butcher shops tend to know more about where the product comes from and can help you break down the labeling if you can’t remember the difference between them all. Farm markets and healthy chains like WholeFoods are also good options since they are known for better business practices when it comes to the environment and animal welfare.

Pro tip: I also have a sustainable egg buying guide (you know, if you are shopping anyways).

Final thoughts

In order to combat climate change and meet our global targets, we need to cut down our dairy and meat consumption as a whole (by 50% by 2030), not shift from one bad product to a slightly worse one.
This doesn’t mean you can’t eat chicken, sustainable living is a journey after all. But when you can, consider other protein options like hemp hearts or lentils and try to purchase chicken that has been raised more humanely and has certifications like the ones we talked about today to back it up.

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