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.
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)….
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.
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….)
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 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 .
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.”
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.
Here’s how I’d prioritize the options.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- Antibiotic-Free – This one’s probably self-explanatory.
- 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.
- 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.
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!