Know Your Chicken: What USDA Poultry Labels Actually Mean

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Photograph: U.S.D.A., Flickr

Allow me to set the scene: you head to the supermarket for chicken. It should be easy. No, it should be effortless. But instead, you find yourself lingering in front of the shelves wondering. Not whether to go with white or dark meat, skin-on or skinless—I've usually settled on a recipe and made that decision ahead of time. It's the choice between the differently labeled packages, cordoned off into their own sub-sections within the poultry case. There's the plainly-packaged store brand, which tells me in a non-descript font that it's "all natural" (begging the question of what an unnatural chicken breast or drumstick looks like). Then there's the big name behemoth, which has an illustration of a farm offset by a conspicuous badge, exclaiming that this chicken is cage-free and raised without hormones. The next shelf over and a few price rungs up is the specialty purveyor, which comes with an impressive list of credentials. Organic! Free-range! Raised without antibiotics! How's a girl to choose?

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Photograph: U.S.D.A., Flickr

It's not an obvious choice, especially with the varying information and opinions out there. It seems that for every damning report we hear about the poultry industry, there's also a pointed rebuttal.

But there is one authority out there that sets the ground rules for discussion: the USDA. Its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), oversees the language used to market and sell meat and other agricultural food products in the US. When it comes to poultry (which includes chicken, turkey, duck, goose, and other farmed birds), it sets legally enforced definitions for the terms you're likely to see on packaging and ensures that producers have adhered to them. The AMS is your final authority when it comes to setting apart the organic birds from the naturally raised; the free-range from the cage-free.

Sam Jones-Ellard, a public affairs specialist at the AMS, explains that the agency creates these certifications "at the request of industry" with the goal of "working with industry partners to develop new labels and programs, to meet their needs and to meet consumer demand." In other words, by verifying that a product adheres to basic standards, consumers get a better idea of what they're purchasing and producers are able to better market their products.

But while the AMS's labels might be able to tell you a thing or two about your meat, some argue that many of these definitions are unhelpfully broad or vague. Deborah Krasner, author of Good Meat, thinks that "USDA labels are irrelevant, as they are made for factory farmed, industrial meat." Many of the larger producers can pay to have the USDA to certify their operations (and they do—giants like Perdue have even created whole ad campaigns around the USDA program that is unique to them and only them). But verification is a costly, intensive, and entirely voluntary process that can work to the detriment—or at least exclusion—of smaller-scale producers. So much so that many farmers who meet or even exceed the basic standards set by the AMS will opt out of having their products certified for those very reasons.

That's why you'll want to take the USDA's meat marketing system with a grain of salt. It's not comprehensive and it's more likely to carry weight in the aisles of your supermarket than, say, your local farmer's market. But for those poultry items that are checked by the AMS, here's a guide to what the agency certifies, and what those certifications actually mean.

Grading

Poultry grades cover the physical features of a bird, such as the plumpness of its meat, the distribution of fat underneath the skin, and even its bone structure. It also checks for attributes that are the result of post-slaughter handling, like tears in the skin and the presence of feathers. Basically, it's a seal that ensures that your meat looks good and hits all of the visual cues we look for in an ideal bird.

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Photograph: U.S.D.A, Flickr

After inspection, the AMS grader gives a grade of A, B, or C, which can be applied to either the whole carcass or the individual, cut up parts. Grade A poultry is the highest ranked, with rounded, full meat, a consistent layer of fat, clean skin, and an absence of major physical deformities, tears, or discolorations. When graded as such, it will have a "USDA A Grade" shield on the packaging.

But poultry grades don't really establish much that differentiates products at the retail level. With beef, grades can say a lot about physical characteristics like fat content or marbling, and labels like "prime," "choice," and "select" actually refer to distinct tiers of meat. But with poultry, you're unlikely to see anything other than A grade meat sold as either the whole bird or in parts. Some producers may try to get away with using the prime/choice/select label on their packages. But under the AMS definition, these can be used to describe any poultry that is of A grade quality—B and C grade meat is generally reserved for ground or processed products...just don't count on it to be marketed as such.

Free Range

Breeds raised for meat tend to be fast growing creatures that can put on muscle quickly while still young and tender. Most chickens are 13 weeks old or younger at the time of slaughter; ducks are generally no more than 16 weeks. Getting to full size in such a short period means they have to eat well during their brief lifespan. And yes, that means they poop a lot, too.

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Photograph: U.S.D.A., Flickr

When kept indoors in limited space, as much conventionally raised chickens are, things can easily turn unsanitary and unhealthy. Patrick Martins, founder of Heritage Foods USA, argues that indoor confinement makes birds more prone to sickness, namely because they're so young they haven't developed much of an immune system. And while conventional poultry farming often takes the view that outdoor ranging increases a flock's chance of exposure to pathogens, he suggests that this is in fact a misguided claim which suggests that "biodiversity is a threat; they're saying the opposite of what is true."

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Photograph: Sarah Gilbert, Flickr

Sure, the free range ideal conjures images of a pastoral alternative—images of roomy, outdoor living spaces and great green pastures. But the AMS definition of free-ranging or free-roaming? Not quite so idyllic. In fact, it only states that animals have "continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle." For poultry, this encompasses a whole range of scenarios, making the free range label vague at best. On the one end, you have free range birds that spend the majority of their time at pasture, pecking at the earth and moving across different grassy patches regularly. But a free range bird could also be one that spends most of its time inside a barn with hundreds or thousands of other compatriots—there may be a door to the outside, but there's no guarantee that your bird will ever venture out there, or that there's even much grass or soil to be found if it does.

The moral? Keep in mind that USDA-verified free range chicken is not required to spend any amount of time in fresh air, nor are there any strict regulations regarding the density of its living space. And be wary of terms that have no legal definition, such as "barn roaming" and "pastured"—these have no enforcement, and may mean whatever the producer or processor decides.

Cage-Free

The cage-free label is something that is relevant only for egg laying hens, which are caged to make egg collection more efficient. Caging typically doesn't have any place in raising poultry for meat...and yet you'll still find the cage-free label on a whole lot of poultry products. It may sound more humane, but it's really just an advertisement of the practices all poultry producers are already employing anyway. Under the AMS definition, cage-free simply means that the birds were able to "freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area."

No Antibiotics Administered

Poultry is often raised in sizeable flocks, so when disease strikes, it can quickly get passed from bird to bird. In order to control the spread of illness-causing bacteria, and to encourage birds to grow faster, producers might preemptively introduce antibiotic medicines into a flock's feed, rather than trying to isolate the affected animals. Practices like these have garnered controversy for numerous reasons, including the concern that trace residues of these medicines may remain undetected in a bird's system by the time it reaches slaughter.

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The AMS identifies poultry that has been raised without antibiotics as that which has "never received antibiotics from birth to harvest." The National Chicken Council emphasizes that "A no-antibiotics program is not some magical program for producing disease-free birds. Rather, it's a program which intends to raise birds without antibiotics and labels those which are successfully raised without antibiotics as 'raised without antibiotics.'" Farmers still have to contend with sick birds within their flocks, and must remove any that require antibiotic treatment from the program and label them accordingly.

No Hormones

Administering growth hormones and steroids to poultry has been illegal in the United States since 1959, after it was found that the hormonal treatments that were most widely used in birds at the time could affect humans in ways that, well, an excess of hormones tends to. Yet many poultry producers still advertise that their flocks never receive hormones (this must accompanied by the statement "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones," although you'll usually find it in very fine print). Simply put, this is another example of producers bragging about practices that are already mandated by law.

Naturally Raised

Also known as the "Never Ever 3," naturally raised poultry is given entirely vegetarian feed and receives neither antibiotics nor hormones. This means that their diet consists primarily of of grains and plant matter (corn, wheat, barley, oats, and sorghum are common), and is free of the sorts of slaughter byproducts that have been known to wind up in chicken feed as an unspecified "animal protein."

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Photograph: U.S.D.A., Flickr

If these standards matter to you, take care! "Naturally raised" poultry is NOT the same as "natural" poutrly. In the USDA's view, any natural meat, poultry, or egg product is simply one that is minimally processed and doesn't have any artificial flavorings, colorings, or preservatives added after slaughter. Most meat products qualify as natural under this definition, so it's a pretty meaningless adjective.

Organic

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Like other farm animals covered under the National Organic Program, organic poultry must be both naturally raised and free ranging. Their feed also has to be certified organic—that is, free of GMOs, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. To qualify, birds must be brought up within these standards beginning on the second day of their life right up until slaughter.

In the scope of practices that the AMS enforces for poultry, the organic label could be considered the most comprehensive, since it covers aspects of feed and living conditions. It doesn't necessarily ensure a better tasting bird, but it at least covers the bases in terms of making sure that there's been some scrutiny put into how it was fed, treated, and raised.

The Pecking Order

USDA certifications may say a thing or two about how a bird raised for meat lived its life. But it's debatable whether they really carry any weight when it comes to describing the ultimate flavor you're going to get on your plate. Whereas grades and other labels can tell you something about the tangible qualities of a piece of beef, there really isn't a similar system in place for poultry—the age and class of the bird might help provide some clues, but things really don't go much deeper than that.

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Photograph: U.S.D.A., Flickr

For anyone with an interest in the ethics of raising poultry, however, the AMS's standards are a step toward increased clarity. That said, it's worth keeping in mind that there's a number of third party organizations that work with poultry producers, and sometimes also with the AMS, to establish a consensus for issues that matter to consumers. For example, the National Chicken Council's definition of humane treatment has been used as a standard for the "humanely raised" label in certain programs overseen by the agency. Keep an eye out for those sorts of labels but, again, do your research rather than take them at face value.

As Krasner suggests, choosing poultry should be a matter of knowing what the optimal conditions may be, and understanding how what's available to you stacks up in comparison. "I think if you know what the ideal is—free range, pastured, fed on organic grains—then you can intelligently scale down from that on occasions when something else is needed," she says.

Back in the fluorescent-lit supermarket aisle by the poultry case, that pastoral ideal feels like it belongs to some far-off world. But this remote distance between the farm and the shopping cart is precisely why the USDA and others offer a vocabulary to fill in the blanks. It's a vocab that's not always precise, for sure, but it is there to help navigate an industry that is big, complex, and crowded with competitors grabbing for your attention.