Organic Chicken, Please

We’ve all heard our fair share of horror stories about chickens:

  • Multiple hens in one cage, unable to stretch or turn around
  • Lights on all night to stimulate egg production
  • Beak trimming (removing the tips of beaks to prevent pecking and cannibalism)
  • Forced molting (withholding food in order to cause feather loss, which reboots the egg-laying process)
  • Salmonella (or at least the kitchen disinfectant ads are constantly
    reminding us)

But there is good news on the horizon:

  • Animal advocates have been pressuring the chicken industry to create better living conditions. Recent California state legislation has mandated that chickens must be able to stand up, turn around, and essentially move freely within their cages–if there must be cages at all.
  • Chickens now come in a variety of classifications with information about their feed and their living conditions (see Shopping Tips).
  • The USDA forbids chicken farmers from treating the birds with hormones.
  • Antibiotics can be used in the feed to prevent disease, but, like pork, the chickens go through a “withdrawal period” to ensure no trace of it in the
    system at slaughter.
  • Additives are not allowed for fresh chicken, but may be present in processed
    or “enhanced” chicken products.

Shopping Tips

As always, try to get some information from the butcher:

  • What farm does the chicken come from? (Go home and see if you can find the farm’s website for more information. Often they can be misinformed about whether it’s really organic.)
  • How much does the butcher know about their supplier? (This is a good gauge in general for your butchers. If they don’t know much about their suppliers, it may be time to move on.)


“Organic”: Chickens cannot be given antibiotics and their feed cannot contain pesticides or fertilizers. Organic chickens must also be raised “Free Range.”

“Free Range”: This can be misleading. Often chickens aren’t roaming free on pastureland, but are simply given “access” to the outside for a limited amount of time (the USDA requires proof of this access, but there is no third-party verification). However, since chickens tend to stay near their food and water, which is indoors, they may choose not to go outside when given the chance. However, the “caged chicken” danger primarily pertains to egg-laying hens, and not chickens raised for meat. Read more about Eggs.

“Natural”: Once again, this sounds better than it is. Yes, it indicates that the chicken is free of any additives or artificial ingredients, but the term indicates nothing about quality of life, the use of antibiotics, or organic feed. 

“Fresh”: The chicken has never been frozen or stored at a temperature less than
26 degrees. 

“Certified Humane”: This label is gaining traction on a variety of products like beef, pork, chicken, eggs, and cheese. Though it does not guarantee that the food
is organic, its strict certification process guarantees that the animal was treated “humanely” from birth to slaughter in an effort to encourage responsible farming practices. This means that the animals cannot be confined to cages or crates, and they have the ability to do what comes naturally, like flap their wings or dust-bathe. 

Common Questions

Is prepackaged chicken okay?
We recommend always buying chicken from a butcher who can guarantee its
quality face-to-face. But if you must buy prepackaged chicken, look for chicken that
doesn’t have a lot of excess liquid in the bag; the liquid should be pink and clear
(not cloudy); the skin should have a creamy or light yellow tone; avoid bruised skin; and there should not be an excessive amount of fat to trim. If it’s on sale, it’s probably about to expire.

Should I rinse and pat-dry the chicken before cooking?
General consensus says it’s not necessary since the right amount of heat will kill any bacteria. Plus, washing and then patting dry a chicken could increase the chance of getting raw chicken juice on your counter, increasing the risk of spreading salmonella.

Chicken Soup Rant
Avoid canned chicken soups. They’re brimming with sodium and the main ingredient is usually an egg-laying hen past her prime.

  • Buy organic chicken
  • “Free range” sounds better than it is
  • “Natural” chicken does not guarantee humane treatment or organic
    feed, and may contain antibiotics
  • “Certified humane” chickens cannot
    be confined to cages
    or crates
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