Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
19 Jul

Choosing Chicken: A Primal Purchasing Guide

Poultry: a Primal staple that complements any kind of fare any time of day (nothing like chicken hash for breakfast!). There’s more to poultry than chicken of course (more on that another time), but make no mistake: chickens these days aren’t created equal. Breeding, feeding and other poultry farming standards result in animals that scarcely resemble each other, let alone taste the same. To the Primal point, however: when it comes to judging a chicken’s nutritional profile, a little info can go a long way. Today’s item of business: choosing the best Primal chicken for the money.

As I’ve said many a time before, modern agricultural practices result in food that bears little resemblance to Grok’s dietary staples. Not only is it helpful to know the raising condition of the chicken you’ll eat (stress doesn’t make for tasty poultry), but the feed these birds receive in large part determines the nutritional profile (as well as toxins and other unsavory bits) they’ll offer. At issue in the last few years is the widespread use of arsenic in chicken feed, which can both promote growth and help prevent disease. This arsenic additive, although not the most toxic form we associate with poisoning, nonetheless shows up in the poultry meat (PDF) and the people who eat chicken products. Despite the less toxic form, no one is arguing that is good for people.

The controversy surrounding feed doesn’t end there. For example, there’s the issue of animal byproducts. Ground up animal parts, bone meal, and the floor droppings of animal pens make it into the feed used by many an industrial farm. Even under the best conditions, chickens like most livestock are fed grains and soybeans. Is this really the best we can do? Is it worth paying good money for? What is the full range of options when it comes to a healthy chicken dinner? Let’s take a look.

Labels

Yes, those baffling tags which leave you wondering whether you’re being sold a bill of goods. Answer: sometimes yes and sometimes no. Here’s a quick and dirty primer on what they mean (and don’t mean)….

Natural

I’ll start with probably the most useless label in the bunch. There’s a huge brouhaha about this one now going on in the political arena, especially in California. The gist of the label is this: no artificial colors, flavors, or other ingredients, no preservatives and “minimal processing.” Pretty much anything in the meat aisle that’s left unflavored would qualify. At the center of the political controversy, poultry can still be pumped up with a salt solution and still bear the “all natural” label.

Free Range

Important note: this isn’t the same as pastured. Essentially, this label indicates that the birds weren’t raised in cages. The rest is a question mark. They likely had limited access to the outdoors, and they might have still lived in crammed conditions common to industrial poultry farms. According to USDA rules, free range denotes a mere five minutes of open air access per day, which could mean a small gate was open to a paved lot. The “option” is what fills the letter of the USDA law here. Unless you know your farmer and his/her raising methods, I’d say this label is pretty meaningless.

100% Vegetarian Diet

The idea here isn’t a vegetarian chicken. (Chickens aren’t natural vegetarians, since they forage on bugs when left to their own devices.) This label shows that they didn’t have access to pasture, but it does indicate that the birds were fed grains and possibly grasses. The important part is that their feed didn’t contain animal byproducts, which can mean ground up animal parts and feces. (What they get into while crammed in those industrial shelters is another story….)

Pesticide-Free

Although you’d think this would be just for the feed, guess again. Chicken houses – especially large industrial farming structures – are subject to the infestation of all kinds of pesky critters like lice and rodents. As a result, repeated doses of insecticides are part and parcel of most poultry birds’ existence.

Raised without antibiotics/No antibiotics administered/Antibiotic-free

Their birds, the company promises, didn’t receive antibiotics at any time. Farms asserting this claim are supposed to remove sick animals from the herd and refrain from selling them under this label. You may also see “Raised Without the Routine Use of Antibiotics,” which means antibiotics could have been given for treatment of illness but not for preventative measures.

Raised without added hormones/No hormones administered/No added hormones

Given that U.S. law prohibits the use of growth hormones in poultry birds, consider this another useless label.

Pastured or Pasture-Raised

This is the label I suggest looking for, but don’t be surprised if the search presents a challenge. Pastured suggests that the birds lived on pasture and got some of their food from the pasture environment. For poultry, this usually means that the bird get about 20% of its food from pasture source (grass, seeds and bugs) and 80% from grain/grasses feed mixes (corn, oats, soybeans alfalfa, clover, etc.). Ask your farmer what he/she uses for feed. Chickens, unlike cows, don’t have the digestive ability to live on pure grass, but the inclusion of fresh pasture sources in their diet naturally boosts the nutritional content (vitamins and omega-3s) of the poultry.

Heritage

Heritage breeds are hard to come by and pricey when you do. Nonetheless, if you’re up for the adventure and want to support the agricultural diversity movement, you’ll likely enjoy a healthy, richer tasting bird raised in a pastured, small farm environment. Check out these resources for more info on heritage chickens and other heritage poultry varieties.

Organic

This is a label truly worth its salt. To use this label, the farm must meet USDA standards and be officially certified through the USDA. Here’s what the label promises in a nutshell: (for the birds themselves) 100% organic feed, no animal byproducts, no hormones, no antibiotics, outdoor access, no irradiation, no pesticides (for the feed), no synthetic fertilizers, no sewage sludge (yes, folks, you read that right), no synthetic pesticides, and no GMO. Farmers who are in the process of converting to fully organic practices can use the term “transitional.”

Beyond Organic

Jumping through the hoops for organic certification/recertification is no small (or cheap) venture. As a result, some farmers have chosen to run their farms with fully organic practices – oftentimes stricter yet than organic – but without USDA certification. Instead, they chose to go by individual relationships with consumers and businesses and by their reputation in the region. Other farmers associated with the label purposefully relinquished their certification to protest the shifting “culture” of the organic label as large industry-owned farms make up an increasing percentage of USDA organic certifications.

Primal Choices

Here’s how I’d prioritize the options.

  1. Pastured – It’s harder to come by and pricier than organic, but the poultry offers more nutritionally through extra nutrients like vitamin E, folic acid and B-12 as well as more omega-3s. Even though pastured chicken might not be labeled antibiotic-free, it’s likely the farm doesn’t use medication. It’s extra work to pasture birds, which indicates a greater commitment on the farmer’s part. Plus, the chickens are less likely to need antibiotics when they live on a natural diet with plenty of space.
  2. Organic – Although pastured chicken provides nutritional extras, organic poultry at least ensures that you’re not getting a dose of pesticides, arsenic, and antibiotics with your dinner.
  3. 100% Vegetarian Feed – If a chicken isn’t pastured, the non-vegetarian part of the feed is likely animal by-products. Need I say more?
  4. Antibiotic-Free – This one’s probably self-explanatory.
  5. Free Range – Sure, free range can mean a lot of things, but it at least suggests there was some opportunity for movement and a slightly healthier/more humane living environment. It’s a tough call but probably better than fully conventional. This is a case where it’s especially helpful to know the farmer/company and the particulars of their practice.
  6. Conventional – Regardless of where you live, you should be able to find poultry that ensures vegetarian feed. Personally, I’d suggest staying away from chicken that can’t promise that much. That said, as with other meats, if conventional is all you can afford or have access to it’s better than no meat at all. Just eat the leaner cuts, since toxins concentrate in fat.

Purchasing Sources

As for purchasing sources, know that your regular grocer might not be the best way to go. Even if the store carries pastured and/or organic chicken, you could pay a premium and not get the freshest poultry out of the deal. Still, if you prefer a traditional grocery store for convenience or are limited to this kind of source, be sure to let the management know you regularly purchase the “specialty” (i.e. lower turnover) product and offer to buy it frozen and/or in bulk. You might nab yourself a decent discount. I’d also recommend buying whole birds as well, since they stay fresher longer and are generally a better deal anyway.

Rest assured that there are plenty of other purchasing options in all parts of the country. Local co-ops, farmers’ markets and CSAs are all great places to look for reasonably priced pastured and/or organic chicken. Go in with a friend or family member to buy in bulk and save even more. Although some pastured/organic poultry farms don’t organize their own chicken shares, they sometimes partner with larger CSA farms in the area and advertise their poultry deals through those memberships and websites. It’s worth a call around. Be sure to check out resources like EatWild.org, LocalHarvest.org and the American Grassfed Association for pastured/organic farms in your area as well as farms that ship direct.

Finally, you can always join the growing “backyard chicken movement” and raise your own. Hats off to anyone who does!

On that note, folks, I’ll turn it over to you. How do you pick your poultry? Have you found a farm you’ve come to depend on? Do you have mail order sources you’ve used and would recommend to others in the MDA group? Thanks for your ideas and insights, and have a great week!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I am still not clear on one thing: If I am shopping a local farm, and the chickens are truly free range BUT they are supplemented with feed (which as Mark’s post states would end up like 80% of their diet) which is from a local granary which takes in locally grown grain which is NOT labeled as anything: it’s not “organic” and the granary doesn’t ask questions of those grain growers. So, even if willing to give up the “Organic” label, I’m still hesitant about the question of GMO grains fed to the chickens. Is GMO a lesser or greater problem than the pesticides/herbicides in the grain? If I’m already paying the local price in chickens, should I just swallow the pill and pay extra for someone who will source “Organic” grains or at least something known to be GMO-free? So, to clarify, I’m asking for another option to be added to the list. #1 assumes that the local pastured birds will be fed Organic. But what if we are talking about a pastured bird that is fed GMO or conventional grains. I hope the question makes sense.

    Rachel, Michigan wrote on July 21st, 2010
    • I talked to 2 different local farmers and here is the difference:

      #1 Farmer feeds: Chicken feed is labelled ‘organic’ and contains soybeans. Soybeans in the USA are 99% GMO and not truly organic. Also soybeans given to chicken does to them what grains do to cattle.
      The chicken I bought was small but plump with a small amount of fat, with short weak bones.

      #2 Farmer feeds: Outdoor, pasture raised, walking on a field that just had cattle removed and the chicken are able to go through the cow dung for bugs and maggots. His cows (cattle) are 100% grass-fed/finished without growth hormones, antibiotics, … Supplemented with grains during the colder months WITHOUT Soy.
      The chicken I bought was lean, slender, skinny but very tall, very long bones, very strong bones and joints, HUGE long wings and legs. No fat, not plump at all, the meat was very dense and nutritious. Joints were hard to break to get to the tough cartilage. Even the cartilage was stuck on that bone and tough to get off compared to the #1 Farm chicken.

      #1 Farmer is labelled ‘organic’.
      #2 Farmer doesn’t have the organic label but goes above and beyond organic.

      Organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. You could be swallowing a sick chicken with high amount of traces of soy in its meat.

      suvetar wrote on July 23rd, 2010
  2. For those raising their own chickens, consider giving them most of their feed in the form of sprouted wheat. This is a simple thing to do…just add a stone to the bottom of a clay pot (to keep the grain from pouring out the hole), pour in grain, use a garden hose to wet down 2-3 times a day. Use as many pots as necessary. It takes 3-5 days to get the grain to a sprouted condition, then just take the mass and throw it into the chicken’s feeding area. They will go after it like crazy…if you carry it into their pen they’ll actually swarm you. My father always told the story of buying a bunch of chicks and feeding them that way, and then showing them to the farmer he bought them from, and the farmer not believing they were his, they had grown so fast.

    Joel wrote on July 21st, 2010
  3. I buy a Kosher brand called Empire when I can’t get or can’t afford organic. I buy it at Trader Joes but I know it is available online from Empire as well. It tastes much better than any other brand I’ve tried. I mean, it has flavor! Unlike most conventional chicken. I don’t know all the details about Kosher methods but I’m certain it’s at least vegetarian fed. Also the slaughter methods are humane. In addition, there is a lot of care taken in the handling with regards to bacterial contamination, etc so I feel pretty confident in my choice.

    Shari wrote on July 21st, 2010
    • I know this is way after the fact, but I gotta tell you that kosher (and certainly Empire brand) is no such thing as what you describe it. You aren’t and shouldn’t be certain their chickens are vegetarian fed: not only do the laws of keeping kosher not require it, kosher meat purveyors follow the letter of Jewish law but are otherwise as unethical as any meat processing companies out there. The only thing that is required for a chicken to be kosher is that it was slaughtered in a certain manner (slitting the neck using a very sharp knife, which is the most painless way to kill the chicken) and that it was salted and soaked in water for several days to remove all traces of blood. I used to keep kosher and still do at Passover time. Without fail, the chicken is very poorly butchered and still covered with feathers and quills when you buy it, even though it’s probably 50% more expensive than other conventionally raised chicken.

      Jennifer wrote on March 21st, 2013
  4. We are new to the primal life style, we live in Utah, anyone Know where to get good chicken, I been looking for almost two weeks , but can’t find it yet! help please, thanks

    Freyka wrote on July 21st, 2010
    • Homestead Natural Foods
      homesteadnatural.com

      We live in southern Idaho about 2 hours away from Utah. This is where I get my chicken from because they do NOT feed soy.
      You might find others (within your area)but I could almost guarantee that they feed soy.
      I talk to one of the owners of Homestead Natural Foods every Saturday and he knows all about what and whatnot to feed to animals to bring the healthiest, most nutritious meats on the table.

      Don’t worry about not finding the ‘organic’ label anywhere, they go above and beyond organic and he knows the label doesn’t mean s*&^.

      They even go to the butcher with the cattle and extra cattle that won’t get slaughtered to make sure nothing gets abused or mistreated and the cattle stays calm the entire way. They even give them time to calm down for a day or two outside on a pasture by the butcher. They sometimes even do the kill job right on the pasture so the animal won’t see what’s coming…

      Even dogs that are euthanized at a vets clinic don’t get that much care!

      I only buy my meats from Homestead Natural, they really put in 110%.

      suvetar wrote on July 23rd, 2010
  5. My local Kroger grocery giant sells Amish chicken – it’s a little cheaper than organic from Trader Joe’s and has good consistency/flavor – here is what the website says:

    Miller Poultry Chicken Facts and helpful information

    Our chicks are hatched at our own hatchery and placed primarily on Amish family farms. The birds are raised inside naturally ventilated, curtain sided, houses and are free to roam on open floors. They are fed an all-vegetable, drug free diet and are hormone and antibiotic free.

    Antibiotic free -our chickens are raised on all vegetable feed that is ground at our feed mill from corn and soybeans. No antibiotics are added. Labels can be confusing – with terms like “free-range” on the label it does not mean that it is antibiotic free. There is no requirement that free-range chickens be antibiotic free.

    All Vegetable fed – The feed is a mixture of corn, soybeans, minerals, salt and vitamins that is mixed at our own feed mill and there is no animal by products, animal fats or coloring added, never.

    Are Miller Poultry chickens “free-range”? – Miller Poultry chickens are raised primarily by Amish families in smaller flocks. While they are free to roam within the chicken house, they are not “free-range” for several reasons. Free-range chickens are often found outdoors, where they are challenged by weather, disease and the risk of airborne contaminates. Baby chickens need to be warm and dry during the first two weeks of their life and could not survive the elements.. Also older chickens would be under extreme stress in temperatures colder or warmer than ideal with our midwestern weather, which could lead to extreme stress or even cause death. Miller chickens are raised in a stress-free environment where they have access to fresh water and feed with natural light and ventilation and are free to roam within the chicken house on open floors. The chickens are cared for by peace loving Amish families.

    jay wrote on July 22nd, 2010
  6. In my opinion, the best option is to stop buying chicken right now. And try eating chicken only if you are in a farm or if you know exactly where the chicken come from.

    We are not going to die if we don eat chicken for a while.

    I already stop eating any animal food. I hope the situation could be fixed in the future and I could again enjoy a good and healthy chicken meal.

    Rafael wrote on July 22nd, 2010
  7. Great info thanks! I always try to pick free range but your article was very helpful to let us know choices that are even better!

    Heather Odeh wrote on July 22nd, 2010
  8. For years I’ve eaten the low-price chicken due to its economical suitability for my modest pocket (I’m a uni-arch student) believing that it was good for me since it (on the papper at least) is such a nutritios, high fat/protein – low carb source of calories. Oh was I mistaken, I’ve had a notably much harder time dropping weight whilst ingesting large quantities of this estrogen packed (anti)food. Ever since I learnt that chickens are commonly fed pro-inflammatory, richly phytoestrogenic foods such as soybeans, other legumes and grains I’ve started contact each producer personally, and believe me, ALL are fed soybeans to various extent (30-50% of the chickens total daily caloric intake comes from it) sadly.

    So unless you know the source for the chickens upbringing personally, I don’t recommend anyone to ever eat chicken again. The same unfortunately goes for pork as well. Here in Europe soybeans have become really popular as a livestock staple-food since it makes the animals gain weight mainly in the form of fat and water ridiculously fast, which makes the producers earn money faster since they wont have to pay for as much food for the animals before it’s slaughter ready.

    BE ON GUARD MY FRIENDS :)

    With sincere regards from Sweden / V.

    Viktor wrote on July 23rd, 2010
    • Yes, it’s the same here. Even the organic Farmers at the Farmer’s Market here feed the chicken soybeans.
      And when I told them they asked me ” What’s wrong with soybeans?” They had NO clue and thought all this time their chicken are healthy.

      I now found a farmer who’s actually informed and raises his chicken soy free, the chicken looks completely different from soy-fed chicken.

      He lets his chicken just wander around after the cows to get the bugs out of the dung and catch flies, etc…
      It costs him nothing to raise chicken.

      suvetar wrote on July 23rd, 2010
  9. Great source for pastured chickens:

    http://www.grassfedtraditions.com/pastured_poultry.htm

    And lots of other great products.

    randalland wrote on July 23rd, 2010
  10. Thankfully we are starting to have more farmer’s markets here in Alaska, however they usually only go on in the short summers…….

    sara rottman wrote on July 23rd, 2010
  11. http://www.grassfedcooking.com/ is a website/blog by Shannon Hayes, one of the best sustainable farmers I know. She is also the author of three grand books: THE GRASSFED GOURMET, THE FARMER AND THE GRILL, and RADICAL HOMEMAKERS. She has a great article on pasture-raised chickens on her website!

    Joellyn wrote on July 24th, 2010
  12. I am fearful of visiting the local chicken ranch due to the chance of a chicken stampede with my being unable to escape.

    Death by stampeding chickens, pummeled and crushed under their trampling feet would be a horrid death.

    Obbop wrote on November 18th, 2011
  13. We just ordered organic, pastured, soy-free chicken online from Tropical Traditions. They are also given coco-feed (coconut). I’ll let everyone know how they turned out once they arrive.

    Midge Markey wrote on January 11th, 2012
    • I am wondering how you found the soy-free chicken from Tropical Traditions. I have been eating Bell and Evans air chilled thinking I was doing the right thing and then find they are fed soy…

      Penn wrote on November 13th, 2012
  14. Great weblog here! Also your web site loads up fast! What web host are you using? Can I get your affiliate hyperlink in your host? I desire my website loaded up as quickly as yours lol

    máy in canon wrote on September 5th, 2012
  15. I have to agree, the ‘free range’ label really does not tell anything about the living conditions of the chickens. I used to believe the farmers were honest, however after watching some videos and reading some articles, that has totally changed for me

    Valene wrote on November 12th, 2012
  16. Thank you! I’ve been looking for a comprehensive post on buying chicken. We have a great grass-fed beef/pork source, but haven’t been able to find pastured poultry. Now I will be more informed at the grocery store!

    Hannah wrote on December 28th, 2012
  17. Thank you for the info in this article. Some of it is not relevant to me in Australia but I’ve found a supplier at the monthly Sydney farmers market that provides free-range chickens and hand-reared ducks that actually have some flavour … the flavour of chicken that I recall from when I was young and eating chicken was a treat.

    Alison wrote on August 6th, 2013

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!