“Organic” Chicken Is Different Than “Antibiotic-Free” And “Natural” Means Nothing

Once upon a time, not very long ago, you went to the grocery store — not a big box store, or a warehouse club or online — and bought “chicken.” Now the poultry section can be a confusing mish-mash of labels that may not mean what consumers think they mean, or may not mean anything at all.

As part of its huge story on bacteria and chicken breasts, our pals at Consumer Reports put together a helpful guide for shoppers who want to know what each of the labels on their chickens mean.

This chart at GreenerChoices.org (also run by Consumer Reports) provides even more detailed information on nearly two dozen different chicken labels. Here the ones that most of us will come up against while grocery shopping:

Organic: In order to be labeled “USDA Organic,” the chicken had to have been fed not just a vegetarian diet, but a diet that does not include any genetically modified ingredients or toxic synthetic pesticides. It also means that antibiotics can not be used for anything other than medically necessary antibiotics (though some may argue that there are farmers who stretch the boundaries of what is medically necessary). However, chickens can be provided with antibiotics during their first day of life; the drug-free rule kicks in the day after the shell breaks open.

Organic certification, which requires annual inspections, mandates that access to the outdoors be provided for the chickens, but sets no specific standards for the size of the outdoor area, the size of the door leading between inside and outside, or the amount of time the birds spend outdoors.

No antibiotics: These chickens are never given antibiotics, including in the egg. That said, there is no inspection process to verify this label before it is employed.

No hormones: This label can be used on all conventionally raised chickens in the U.S. as the use of hormones in not allowed in the production of chickens for market. So if you see “no hormones” on a label, it just means “chicken.”

Cage-Free: Another label that is just touting the industry minimum, says CR. “No chickens raised for meat in the U.S. are kept in cages. Neither does it mean that the birds have access to the outdoors.”

Free-range: The only difference between conventionally raised chickens and free-range is that the chickens have access of some sort to the outside. Once again, there are no standards for size of the outdoor area or for the door to the outside, and inspections are not required to use this label.

No GMOs: To get the “Non GMO Project Verified” label, the chicken’s feed must be comprised of less than 0.9 percent of genetically modified crops. Verification is required for this label.

Natural: CR dubbed this one “the most misleading label” of the bunch, as more than half of the survey respondents said they believed “natural” meant the chickens didn’t receive antibiotics or chow down on feed containing GMOs. 42% of respondents said they thought the term meant the chickens were raised outdoors, while 1-in-3 said they thought it meant the same as “organic.” The only substantial requirement for “natural” chicken breasts is that they contain no artificial ingredients, but even then there is no process to verify this claim.