Nanette Maxim

Chicken: Know Your Label Lingo

Roasted Italian ChickenWe’re a nation of chicken lovers, consuming more than 70 pounds of it per person per year (which is double the amount consumed 30 years ago). Whether we’re making a roast chicken, a stew with chicken thighs, a lean boneless, skinless chicken breast with a side of veggies, or some chicken “nuggets” for the kids, our go-to poultry is usually on our weekly shopping list.


You want to buy the best chicken for your money, but labels can be confusing. Is buying a “natural” product worth the extra money? If you’re concerned about animal welfare, does buying “organic” mean the animals are also treated better than conventionally raised birds?


Here’s some help in deciphering the label, to help you make the best chicken choices:


What’s Lacking on the Label

When it comes to chicken, there’s a lot of info left off the label. The following terms, approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), will tell you the basics about how a chicken was raised (what feed they’ve had and whether they’ve been given antibiotics), but, other than the Certified Humane label (not a USDA label), none will truly tell you how that animal was treated in life, and how it was slaughtered. For that information, there’s a bit more homework involved on the consumer’s part. (For more details on labeling, see the USDA Meat and Poultry Labeling Fact Sheet.)


Down on the Farm?

The chicken you’re buying at the supermarket is probably coming not from a small-farm poultry producer but from an industrial-scale operation (a handful of large companies account for almost a third of the chickens produced in the U.S.). And when more animals are raised together, often in cramped quarters, the chance for disease to spread is greater (so the animals are given antibiotics before they’re even sick), and the greater the likelihood that environmental issues will arise, such as water pollution caused by waste run-off. So labels on chicken are among the most important you’ll read.


If you want to try chickens from small-scale producers, check out Local Harvest ( for meat producers near you


Fresh: If you want chicken that’s never been frozen, look for the Fresh label, which indicates that the meat has never been below 26 degrees Farenheit.


Natural: No artificial ingredients or color has been added, and the poultry has been minimally processed.


Free Range: If chicken is labeled “free range” that must mean the animals roamed around outdoors during their lifetime, right? Wrong. It means that the chickens have had access to the outside. They may actually live in highly populated sheds with a door that is open but that the birds may not use because of factors such as lack of shelter from the elements and from predators, or because of the complicated system of a flock’s pecking order.


No Antibiotics: If you don’t want antibiotics in your system (which may lead to antibiotic-resistance in humans), buy chicken that has been raised without them. (For more on antibiotics, see this story in Consumer Reports.)


USDA Organic: Chickens bearing the Certified Organic label have been raised (from Day 2 of their lives) on organic feed and without antibiotics (no hormones are allowed in any portion of the poultry industry). However, “organic” on the label does not indicate the living conditions of the animals.


Certified Humane: From birth to slaughter, animals have been cared for, fed, and sheltered according to the standards set by this independent nonprofit. For example, chickens are raised with room to flap their wings, and haven’t been kept in cages. And antibiotics are given only to sick animals. (Read more at


Chemical Free: Under USDA law, this is not allowed to be used on a poultry label.


The Halal label indicates that the meat was handled according to Islamic law, and under Islamic authority; and Kosher means that it was prepared under rabbinical supervision.


Got the best chicken for your family? We’ve got chicken recipes for you!


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