(Photo credit: John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Today chicken has become so much a part of our menu that we don’t tend to think much at all about these noble little birds. In the ’90s, chicken overtook pork; then, in 2014, chicken surpassed beef as the most popular meat in the country.
We’ve all heard I think about the issues around chicken production. Much of conventional chicken farming is done in not very kind ways especially since these are sentient beings. I won’t belabor the downside of the industry here, but it does suggest that you should only buy chicken that is raised what I call “ethically”.
A good way of determining this is to look for those that carry an “Animal Welfare Certified” label. This certification comes from GAP (Global Animal Partnership) a non-profit certifier of meats including chicken. There are 5 levels of certification which you can go on line to familiarize yourself with but it basically requires minimum space, 6 hours of darkness daily for proper rest and health, no physical alterations such as beak trimming, despurring, dubbing or caponization. As you move up the levels, many more requirements come into effect. Most important at all levels is that every chicken farm must be audited every 15 months to be certified.
Some local brands that meet the standards are Mary’s, Bell and Evans, Whole Foods, Sonoma Meat Company, Perdue and their brands Coleman, Niman Ranch, Sonoma Red and Petaluma Poultry.
There is also a lot of hype and I think misunderstanding about the chicken we get in our markets today. Here are some things I think we should all be aware of:
Hormone Free – Some producers now label their chickens “hormone free”. Sounds like a good thing. Here’s the scoop however. Prior to 1960 or so hormones were used to help make chicken more “uniform” and to calm them down. If you’ve ever been around a chicken house, you know it can get raucous. The truth however is that hormones have not been used in the poultry industry for over 40 years. Thus, any “hormone-free” claims on poultry are irrelevant since the entire poultry industry is “hormone-free.”
Antibiotics – Unfortunately, it’s a common practice in most commercially produced chickens to feed them a steady diet of antibiotics. Because they typically are grown in stressful crowded conditions, they are prime candidates for all kinds of diseases and afflictions. All it takes is for one chicken to get sick and the rest quickly follow. There is also a real concern by dieticians and the medical community about the consumption of “second hand” antibiotics.
Natural -We also see chickens labeled as “natural” – – ever wonder what that means? In 1982, the USDA declared that any product could be labeled “natural” if it did not contain any artificial flavoring, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives, or any other synthetic ingredient, and is minimally processed. Minimal processing may include those traditional processes (smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting) used to make food edible or preserve it or make it safe for human consumption. “Natural,” as the USDA defines it, represents little more than a minimal standard. The myth that the word “natural” suggests is that Natural Chickens are raised antibiotic-free. The fact is that it’s legal for poultry producers to market “naturally grown” chicken that has been raised with antibiotics. Unfortunately, any conventionally grown chicken can qualify for a “natural” label claim so it means little.
Free Range – Sounds like a good and humane thing. Though there are no strict standards for using this term it has come to mean that Free-range chickens have an outdoor pen in which to roam and forage freely, in addition to an enclosed poultry house. The yards are normally the same size as the house. Conventional chickens are never allowed to go outdoors. Another myth is that all “natural” chickens are free-range.
Here are my suggestions for what to look for when you buy a chicken. It should be:
- antibiotic free
- humanely and wholesomely grown
- organic and certified by a reputable 3rd party
- fed a vegetarian diet. That adage of “you are what you eat” applies equally to chickens. Many commercially grown chickens are fed animal by-products which is a questionable practice at best
- air cooled – a more recent development which lessens the spread of diseases such as salmonella
Well I hope I haven’t turned you off chicken. It really is one of the most delicious, adaptable, and economical meat proteins available. Here are some yummy recipes:
(This article was published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. September 22, 2020)