I’m grateful to have our friend David Maren of Tendergrass Farms pen today’s guest post. This is the first post in a three part series on the assertions that retailers make about the way their poultry, pork, and beef is raised.
Every year in the United States the average person eats about 66 pounds of poultry, comprised of about 53 pounds of chicken and 13 pounds of turkey.1 Nearly every pound of poultry sold in the US is raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) but the poultry industry is very aware of the growing demand for naturally raised alternatives. Americans spend more than $50 Billion on chicken and turkey annually2 so the financial incentive for them to cater to this shifting demand is gigantic. A few independent farms have opted to actually change the way they raise their birds but improving poultry production practices, especially raising poultry outdoors on pasture, raises the labor costs of production dramatically. For this reason many companies have decided to turn to clever marketing techniques to meet the demand for alternatives instead of actually changing the highly profitable CAFO-style system in which their birds are raised. Today, poultry production claims that boast about the superiority of certain brands’ “organic,” “cage free,” “hormone free,” or “free range” poultry can be seen almost everywhere from poultry labels in grocery stores to restaurant menus and even online meat shops’ product descriptions. Tragically, these poultry production claims are often relatively meaningless. They’re designed to paint a picture of what the customer wants to buy without requiring significant changes in the old CAFO poultry production model.
From my perspective as a grass fed and pasture raised meats farmer, the claims and the intricate marketing loopholes that poultry companies have manufactured to carve out their portion of the often ignorant and uninformed public seem extremely harmful – both to the farmer who is trying to do things right and competing in the marketplace and the consumer who isn’t eating what they think they are. Ultimately, meat companies depend on people not informing themselves and I’d like to work against that.
It’s important to start by realizing that many times poultry companies depend on their customers making assumptions about their products. Legally, they cannot technically lie on their labels, websites, or restaurant menus so a wide variety of hazy and unclear production claims are utilized to deceptively lead uninformed consumers to believe things about how their birds were raised that simply are not true. Although I cannot give an exhaustive analysis of every possible poultry production claim that’s used today I’ll do my best to shed some light on several of the terms most commonly used in the poultry industry.
A Perdue brand “Cage Free,” vegetarian fed chicken label
“Cage Free,” Vegetarian Fed
The above label is from a Perdue brand pre-cooked whole chicken. The label has a lot on it but let’s focus in on the fact that Perdue boasts that its product was “raised cage free.” The term “cage free” means, of course, that the chicken was raised in some fashion that did not require it to live in a cage. There’s only one problem with that: no chickens or turkeys are raised for meat in cages anywhere in the world. As you’ve probably seen in photos of big chicken confinement houses, typically upwards of 20,000 chickens are packed into a warehouse-style building without a single cage. The truth is that using cages to raise chickens (or turkeys) for meat would be extremely expensive, difficult, and all-around just plain impractical. Notably, egg layer chickens areoften confined to cages so it would appear that companies that claim to offer “cage free” poultry are using that fact to their advantage in hopes that consumers won’t notice the difference. Reality is that caged chicken is pretty hard to come by unless you’re eating very cheap canned chicken soup made from old spent layer hens.
In addition to the “cage free” claim, Perdue says that their chicken is fed an “all vegetarian diet.” While that may sound heartwarming at first I don’t think it’s quite as significant as one might presume. Chickens and turkeys are by nature omnivores, not vegetarians. There’s nothing they love more than a good juicy worm, cricket, or beetle. Their beaks and claws are perfectly designed to enable them to find and catch little meaty insects or even a small snake or two every once in a while. I’d be willing to bet that to a chicken the thought of having to be a vegetarian for their entire life is very depressing. (Perhaps this is something you could relate to.)
A Trader Joe’s brand “free range, USDA Organic chicken label
“Free Range”, USDA Organic
This Trader Joe’s chicken label makes several interesting claims but let’s first take a look at the fact that it crows that it is “Free Range.” The USDA’s definition of “free range” states that the birds must have “continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle.”3 Doesn’t that sound just wonderful? When you read that you probably get an image in your mind of a quaint flock of a few hundred chickens pecking around in a grassy meadow beside a red barn where they roost at night to get away from the neighborhood fox. While the definition of free range theoretically could include that, the financial side of actually raising chickens on pasture is pretty hard-hitting. In most cases, “continuous access to the outdoors” is interpreted to mean that a cat door or similar contraption is screwed to one end of an existing warehouse-style confinement house where, at least in theory, the birds could venture out onto a dirt lot every once in a while if they pushed their way through the door. Note that that the regulation does not specify that the birds need to be taught to actually take advantage of their “access to the outdoors.” Truth be told, most free range chickens and turkeys never make it outside to see the light of day on the imaginary “range” that they have “access” to.
Granted, this doesn’t mean that every single farm, brand, or company that claims that their poultry is “free range” is necessarily a sham. But let’s think about this. If for you, the poultry company, the entire purpose of your production claims is to differentiate your products from those of other companies, and your birds were raised to superior standards than those that would qualify your product to be called “free range,”wouldn’t you avoid using that term for fear that consumers might not appreciate the unique standards that your farmers were adhering to? Most producers who really are going the extra mile to truly raise their animals on pasture would never use a term that would fail to distinguish their product from the common deceptively labeled “free range” products found in the grocery store. The cost of raising truly pastured poultry is many times that of raising poultry to the USDA’s “free range” standard so real pastured poultry farmers want their customers to see the difference so that they’ll pay a premium price. Look for the term “pastured” or “pasture raised” if you want a bird that was actually raised out on the free range.
The term “USDA Organic” brings along with it a plethora of USDA regulations and loopholes that I won’t even start to try to unravel here. What I would like to shed some light on, however, is a little bit about what “USDA Organic” does not mean. As a person who has spent countless hours tending to chickens and turkeys out on real grassy pasture the most striking point to make about “USDA Organic” poultry is that it is in fact not actually required to be raised outdoors as many people assume. As with the term “free range,” “USDA Organic” poultry must technically have “access for all animals to the outdoors.”4 The term access, once again, usually refers to some type of small door at the end of a conventional confinement house which the birds may or may not really use. Unless the terms “pasture raised” or “pastured,” are used, when you see “USDA Organic” chicken or turkey think “CAFO birds raised on certified organic feed without antibiotics.”
Trade Names, “Antibiotic Free” and “Hormone Free”
As I mentioned previously, it is always best to make sure that you don’t make assumptions about a product’s production claims until you know the whole story. Some online grass fed meat retailers will use trade names that include the word “grass” when describing their poultry products even though their poultry isn’t actually raised in grass. For example, a company may call it “grass prairie” poultry or “grassland” poultry. I don’t know about you, but when I see terms like that in the name of a natural chicken product I think it would sure seem to imply that the birds had some kind of relationship to land that has grass on it. Not so fast, my friend. I contacted one such company (that will go unnamed since I can’t corroborate the following conversation) recently. Their customer service representative informed me that “grass prairie poultry” is actually a trade name. I asked the representative if the product I was looking at on their website, their ground chicken, was pasture raised outdoors. She responded that the chicken was “free roaming.” I pressed a bit harder to try to find out if these birds were actually raised outdoors. Finally, she conceded that they were actually raised indoors but that they had “some access to sunlight” and that the birds were never “crated.” It sounds to me like there’s at least one window in each of their confinement houses. Incredible. The claim that they were not “crated” was almost precisely the same as Perdue’s phony “cage-free” claim above. Sorry, nobody raises meat chickens in “crates.” It’s critically important to scrutinize even your most trusted primal/paleo meats suppliers in order to hold them accountable to high standards with regard to straightforward marketing. Even your most beloved online meats shop may be taking advantage of your ignorance by using trade names to deceive you into assuming that their products are raised to higher standards than they actually are.
Additionally, many companies boast that their chicken is raised without hormones or antibiotics. As it turns out, federal regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry3 so this statement is somewhat comparable to someone claiming that their bottled water is “fat free.” Sure it is. But that’s only exciting if you know nothing about water. For the record, Tyson, Perdue, MacDonald’s, and even Wal-Mart’s Great Value chicken is also raised without artificial hormones.
The claim that ground chicken is “Antibiotic Free” is, on the other hand, a legitimate claim a company could make about a poultry product. Much of the conventional poultry raised in this country is fed subtherapeutic antibiotics every day of their lives. “Subtherapeutic” refers to the fact that these antibiotics are not meant as a specific therapy or cure for a disease but that they are intended as a growth promotant that improves the birds’ feed conversion ratio.
A screen shot from a Heritage Foods USA chicken product description page that uses the claim “raised on pasture”
“Raised on Pasture,” “Pastured”
As you can see in this Heritage Foods USA website screenshot, they boast that their birds are “raised on pasture” which is synonymous with “pastured.” This claim specifically indicates that the birds were actually raised outdoors and I have a neighbor here in southwest Virginia who has raised birds for this outfit so I can assure you that this is the real McCoy. However, as with the other claims we’ve looked at so far, it’s important to know the details before supposing too much. One common assumption is that chickens and turkeys raised on pasture only eat grass, clover, and other green leafy plants with no supplemental feed. This is virtually never the case. Being that cows are ruminants they can efficiently derive all of their necessary nutrients from forage alone (which ought to always be the case with grass fed beef) but this is not the case with poultry. Because of their comparatively simple digestive systems they need at least some highly concentrated protein in their diet.
A screenshot showing that Tendergrass Farms claims that their chickens and turkey are “pastured”
In theory, a pastured or pastured raised bird’s protein source could just be bugs. When a farmer has, for instance, ten or fifteen chickens on their farm at a given time the naturally occurring insects in his fields are probably sufficient. The only problem with that is that the maximum profit per chicken that any pastured chicken farmer can expect to net is between $3.00 and $4.00 for raising each bird. (Some farmers who peddle their chicken at farmers markets may claim to make more but they must recognize that their extra “profit” is actually generated by their marketing efforts not their farming.) This means that in order for a pastured chicken farmer to earn, for example, $30,000 net income per year he or she must raise about 10,000 chickens each year. While this is a miniscule number compared to the hundreds of thousands that are raised annually by the typical CAFO chicken farmer, the number of insects that would be needed in order to keep the pastured birds fat and happy on bugs alone would be staggering. For this reason pastured poultry farmers give their chickens and turkeys ample high protein feed in addition to the forage and insects that they eat out in the pasture. This feed, at least in the case of the ration Tendergrass Farms partner farmers use, consists of non-GMO whole roasted soybeans and non-GMO corn with a touch of fish meal (for which our very non-vegetarian birds are quite grateful) but pastured poultry feed formulas vary considerably from farm to farm. In most cases, after the first few weeks of life subsequent to hatching during which the baby chicks are still too weak to survive outdoors, the birds have some type of mobile shelter that is moved onto new pasture every single day throughout their lifespan which protects them from the sun, rain, and predatory hawks (see the photo at the top of this post).
Just Ask Your Farmer, (or Google it)
There are a remarkable number of poultry production claims that I wasn’t able to cover in this post. Notice for example the fact that here at Tendergrass Farms we call our poultry and pork “Beyond Organic.” Just take the time to poke around and investigate the true meaning of the production claims you encounter. If your farmer, restaurant, grocery store, or online meats shop is honest they’ll be proud to define their terms. On our website we’ve dedicated an entire page to telling you just exactly what “Beyond Organic” means. Once you find out how the poultry was actually raised you can make an informed decision before you make your purchase. Just because a certain company’s poultry wasn’t raised outdoors doesn’t mean it’ll kill you. But don’t you want to know if you’re paying a premium price for a product that was raised in a very similar manner to Tyson’s?
David Maren is a husband, father, farmer, and co-founder of Tendergrass Farms. Tendergrass Farms is a cooperative-style online grass fed meats shop that exists as a bridge between the often geographically isolated family farmer and committed grass fed meats enthusiasts like yourself. The Tendergrass Farms vision is to sustain family farms through making it easy for you to purchase their meats by taking advantage of appropriate technology and ultra-efficient transportation models that enable their meats to be shipped to fans all around the USA.