Organic and free-range are popular terms we see in labels, but does organic mean free-range when it comes to chicken?
Organic chicken doesn’t mean it’s free-range. Organic refers to the raising standards for chickens where no synthetic chemicals are used, while free-range refers to their access to the outdoors. From a regulatory perspective, chickens need to be free-range to be certified organic.
As a Certified Health Coach this topic is discussed much in my sessions with clients. While organic and free-range do not necessarily mean the same thing, there may be an overlap in their definitions from a regulatory standpoint.
This article will explain more extensively what the terms organic and free-range mean and the standards set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture to earn organic and free-range certifications for chickens.
Organic vs. Free-Range Chicken
Organic is generally defined as products and food items produced using methods that don’t involve using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemical-based and artificial ingredients 1.
So in chickens, it should be more about what they eat. On the other hand, free-range refers to livestock that has been kept in natural conditions and is given the freedom to move about.
Technically, a chicken can be organic but not free-range, and they can also be free-range and not organic. A chicken qualifies to be called organic as long as it has been raised on purely organic feeds, regardless of where you keep it. Meanwhile, it can be called free-range as long as it can freely roam around, regardless of what it eats along the way.
In other words, you can raise chickens the organic way, where no synthetic substances are involved, yet still contain them in cages. As such, these chickens are organic but not free-range. In the same manner, you can allow your chickens to roam freely around your farm but still give them commercial non-organic feeds. These chickens, therefore, are free-range but not organic.
However, when it comes to government regulations and labeling products as organic and free-range for the market, these definitions could be a little different. So while organic chicken does not necessarily mean it is free-range and free-range does not necessarily mean organic, the lines could get blurry somewhere in the regulatory language.
For instance, just like other animals covered under the federal National Organic Program, a certified organic chicken has to be both naturally raised and free-range 2.
Organic and Free-Range Labels: Who Decides These Things?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the government authority that sets the ground rules for classifying chicken as organic and free-range. Its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is the body that oversees the language applied in the marketing and selling of agricultural food products in the U.S., including meat 3.
And when it comes to poultry, the AMS sets legally enforced definitions for words or terms that you will see on labels and packaging. The AMS is the final authority for differentiating organic chicken from naturally raised chicken and free-range chicken from cage-free chicken.
When Is Chicken Certified Organic?
The USDA has established a set of standards for organically produced food products, including meat 4. This includes a requirement that the food products do not use synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, genetically modified feeds, antibiotics, and hormones during the entire production process. In chickens, the required practices apply to their feeds, their living conditions, and the land they are raised on.
Products need to meet these USDA standards to be able to claim that they are 100 percent organic. Those with 70 percent organic content may indicate on their label that they are made of organic ingredients.
USDA Standards for Organic Livestock
According to the USDA, for poultry products to be eligible for organic certification, the farms need to comply with these standards 5:
- The farm or land used for housing livestock and pasture, as well as for harvesting livestock feed, must qualify for organic certification. Prohibited substances like chemical fertilizers must not be applied to this land for three years immediately before the harvest of any crop used for feeding.
- Chicken intended for slaughter or egg production must undergo organic management starting no later than the second day after birth until the day they are slaughtered. All organic chicks’ purchases need to be accompanied by organic certificates and receipts that indicate the seller’s name, the date of purchase, and the number of chicks bought.
- All certified chickens must receive 100 percent certified organic feed, including organically produced grains and forages, feed additives, and feed supplements. Water additives and vitamins and minerals that are approved by the FDA are also accepted feed. Bedding, as well as all pastures, must also be certified organic.
Other than animal drugs and hormones to promote growth, the USDA prohibits the use of urea or manure on feed formulas, the use of animal by-products for feeds, the provision of feed supplements or additives that are beyond the chicken’s health and nutritional needs. And also, the use of garden and kitchen scraps that are not certified organic.
Some conditions need to be met in terms of the chicken’s health care, soil erosion and water quality, slaughter, marketing and labeling, and record keeping.
USDA regulations also mandate that chicken raised and labeled as organic should be allowed access to pasture, which means access to the outside, fresh air, direct sunlight, and freedom of movement.
When Is Chicken Labeled Free-Range?
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service awards poultry operations the “free-range” certification if they can demonstrate that their chickens have access to the outdoors 6.
The birds don’t have to be allowed access to grassy yards and pastures to be considered free-range, nor do they need to have a certain amount of time outdoors. The size of the outdoor area that the chickens may roam also does not matter.
Without a more definite description of the chickens’ raising conditions, the term “free-range” can be inherently ambiguous. All organic chickens are raised under general free-range conditions based on the regulatory language, but not all free-range chickens necessarily qualify as an organic food product.
What’s more, producers only need to demonstrate through testimonials or affidavits that their chickens have continuous and free access to the outdoors.
Given these things, the free-range label is a little bit controversial, given that some producers argue that the free-range label applies to their poultry even if their chickens do not actually go outdoors as much as they claim 7. Some producers believe that the label should only apply if the chickens make use of the outdoor area.
Free-Range Is Not Exactly Free-Range
According to PETA, many free-range chickens that are raised for meat never even spend any time outdoors. The USDA merely requires that the birds have access outside, but PETA notes that many of them never get to make it outside because they have been raised and drugged to become so fat they could hardly move.
PETA even cites Terry Swagerty, Washington State University farm expert, confirming that most free-range chickens never make it outside because they are not bred for mobility but for hogging down food.
PETA also quotes the National Chicken Council as saying that if you head over to a free-range farm and expect that you’ll see a bunch of chickens clucking around in pastures, you will only be disappointed.
Other Chicken Labels Besides Organic & Free Range
Chickens also have other labels aside from organic and free-range. Knowing what these labels mean could help avoid confusion.
Poultry grades describe your chicken’s physical features, like the meat’s plumpness, the bone structure, and the distribution of fat under its skin. It also covers the attributes that came as a result of after-slaughter handlings, such as the presence of feathers and tears in the skin.
Therefore, the grading is a seal, ensuring that your chicken looks good and has passed all the visual cues 8.
The AMS grader inspects the chicken and then gives it a grade of A, B, or C. This grade can be applied on the whole carcass or on individual parts that have been cut up 9.
The highest grade is A, and a chicken with a USDA A Grade stamped on its packaging is rounded, full of meat, has clean skin, has a consistent layer of fat, and has no major physical deformities, discolorations, and tears.
The cage-free label on chickens is only relevant for egg-laying hens. The hens are caged to make egg collection efficient and convenient. Under the AMS definition, a cafe-free chicken simply means that it was able to roam a building, room, or enclosed area freely 10.
While the term “organic” should already apply to chickens that have not received any antibiotic, some still get the antibiotic-free label to let consumers know that no antibiotics have been administered from the time of birth to the time of slaughter.
The National Chicken Council, however, clarifies that a no-antibiotics program is not a way of ensuring that they are disease-free chickens.
In the U.S., it is illegal to administer steroids and growth hormones to poultry since 1959. This was after it was found that widely used hormonal treatments for birds could affect hormone levels in humans, too.
However, some poultry producers still indicate on their packaging that their chickens were never given hormones, even if they don’t have to anymore since it is required by law. It is simply bragging about a practice they are doing because it is legally mandated.
Chicken with a “naturally raised” label means that it has been given entirely vegetarian feed and has not received hormones or antibiotics. A naturally raised chicken’s diet consists mainly of grains and plant matter like wheat, corn, oats, barley, and sorghum. It is also free of slaughter by-products that end up in chicken feed as some sort of unspecified animal protein.
And just in case you are wondering, “naturally raised” chicken is not the same as “natural” chicken. As far as the USDA is concerned, a natural chicken is simply one that doesn’t have any artificial colorings, flavorings, or preservatives added post-slaughter.
In short, it has been minimally processed. Under this definition, most meat products qualify as natural. So it is yet another somewhat unnecessary label.
There are no legal standards for getting the “pastured” label. The label is typically used to emphasize that the chicken has been primarily raised outdoors on live pasture, where they can peck.
According to SF Gate, both the organic and free-range systems allow the chickens access to the outdoors. And while this outdoor access does not guarantee better living conditions, organic and free-range labels are generally considered more humane systems than the conventional poultry production system.
This is because, under a conventional system, the chickens are raised in very close quarters or are confined to cages or buildings along with hundreds of others.
Chickens that are confined to shared cages do not engage in their natural behaviors, like foraging for insects, eating leftover crops, flapping their wings, and taking dust baths 11. They are not able to benefit the landscape as free-range chickens do.
Free-range chickens can fertilize the soil and help reduce pests as they forage and roam. This, in effect, creates a symbiotic relationship between them and the land.
Moreover, the organic production system is part of a complete farming ethos that aims to work in harmony with nature 12.
The production of food is an integral part of the farming cycle or calendar, so a certified organic producer needs to think about how their work affects the welfare of the animals, their holdings, as well as the environment as a whole.
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- USDA: Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means
- USDA: National Organic Program
- USDA: Agricultural Marketing Service
- SFGATE: Organic Vs. Free-Range Chicken
- USDA: Guidelines for Organic Certification of Poultry
- SFGATE: What Does Organic Free-Range Chicken Mean?
- SFGATE: The Difference Between Organic & Free-Range Chicken
- USDA: Poultry Grades
- USDA: Poultry and Poultry Products Grades and Standards
- USDA: USDA Graded Cage-Free Eggs: All They’re Cracked Up To Be
- SFGATE: What Are The Benefits of Free-Range Chicken?
- Organic Trust CLG: Organic Or Free Range – Is There A Difference?