Now reading How to Decode a Chicken Label

How to Decode a Chicken Label

A guide to deciphering all of the confusing ways grocery stores market chicken.


This comes from our Chicken issue, on newsstands now. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine.

Growing up, my uncle Lenny had a pet rooster called Gregory. Gregory ate corn and roamed around freely in the backyard of their house in Woodside, Queens. When Gregory was old and big enough, my great-uncle Cosmo killed him and cooked him for dinner. I don’t know how Gregory tasted, but I do know that no one wondered where he came from, how he was treated, or whether he had been pumped full of steroids. But today there are lots of questions to answer about how a chicken lived and died: Was it allowed outside? Was it fed antibiotics? What does it mean that it’s “organic”? Here’s a guide to what all those labels mean—and which matter—to boost your chicken-buying acumen.

Air Chilled: After processing, chickens need to be rapidly chilled to prevent the spread of salmonella and other stu you don’t want to eat. Most birds are water cooled—submerged in circulating tanks of cold water that’s often treated with chlorine or hydrogen peroxide. Critics say this method causes chickens to absorb water, which dilutes their flavor. Air-chilled birds are passed through several chambers of cold air until they reach a safe temperature, and we find that they tend to be better tasting, if more expensive.

All-Vegetable Diet: Chickens who go meat-free get this label. Others are given corn- and soybean-based feed that includes animal by-products, which are described thusly by the Animal Welfare Institute: “unused parts of other animals, for example meat and bone meal, feather meal, and/or manure, eggs, and hatchery waste.” Yum.

Amish Country/Amish Raised: This term is not regulated by the USDA, so technically anyone can use it. Extra points for authenticity if there’s an image of a little horse-drawn buggy on the package.

Antibiotic Free/No Antibiotics Ever/Raised without Antibiotics: Most chicks that will be raised for meat receive a preemptive dose of antibiotics. (Don’t be all Jenny McCarthy judgy; medicine isn’t all bad.) Chickens raised without that first-day dose, or any other subsequent doses, can be labeled “no antibiotics ever” or “raised without antibiotics.” “Antibiotic free” is not a USDA-approved label, but it implies that the birds have gone through an antibiotic withdrawal period of seven to fourteen days before slaughter, so there are no traces of medicine left in their system.

Cage Free: Unlike big-industry egg-laying birds, which are kept in cages, broiler chickens are almost always kept together in growing houses, sheds, or barns. By the USDA definition, cage free just means birds can roam around freely in an enclosed area, but not outdoors like free-range birds, so this label doesn’t really mean anything.

Enhanced Chicken Products : Like your chicken with a little extra flavor? Enhanced chickens have been pumped with things like salt, sugar, or a “broth-like solution.” If you opt for these birds, which you shouldn’t, the ingredient list will give you a rundown of the enhancements that have been performed. You may also see this as “basted” or “self basted.”

Farm Raised: All chickens grown for food are raised on some sort of farm, so this label can be used for any chicken, no matter how terrifying the “farm.”

Free Range/Free Roaming: Chickens raised in climate-controlled growing houses with access to the outdoors or some sort of fenced-in area qualify for this label. We’d say it’s good, but not great. Free range does not mean the birds can forage freely or that they are organic.

Fresh: The meat has never been frozen.

Halal: Killed by a Muslim butcher according to dhabihah, the guidelines for proper slaughter under Islamic law. The chicken must be blessed before the throat and arteries are cut from front to back with a very sharp, undamaged blade. The blood is then drained from the body, as the chicken must be completely dead before post-slaughter processing can begin.

Humane/Humanely Raised: Humane treatment isn’t regulated by the USDA, so for this to actually mean something, it has to be verified by a third party; look for labels like “certified humane” or “animal welfare approved.” Each organization has its own standards for raising, handling, and slaughtering animals—but they’ll all help you sleep better than what the USDA expects out of standard chicken handling.

Kosher: Slaughtered by a shohet, a trained butcher under rabbinical supervision. The shohet blesses the bird and uses an unblemished knife in one swift movement to sever the trachea, esophagus, and major blood vessels. The chicken is inverted over a bucket and left until the blood is drained. The lungs are then inspected; damaged lungs disqualify the bird for kosher certification. The birds are soaked in clean water, dried, salted, and then washed again before packaging.

Made in the USA: You guessed it: per the Country of Origin Labeling law (which the government refers to as COOL), chickens with this label are hatched, raised, and processed in the U.S.

Natural: Anything added to these chickens must be natural (not artificial, like chemical preservatives or coloring agents). This term also implies minimal processing. Either way, labels must include a statement explaining how it’s natural.

No GMOs: The USDA does not yet have a standard for disclosing genetic modification on labels, but third-party organizations can verify non-GMO products. The Non-GMO Project has one of the most prevalent and strict labels, but even their chicken feed can still contain up to 0.9 percent genetically modified crops, so it’s not really none.

No Hormones Added: The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in chicken production, so all chickens are hormone-free chickens and this label doesn’t mean anything. Growth drugs and antibiotics, however, are totally fine in a “no hormones added” chicken.

Organic: To be certified organic, chickens must be raised and processed by the following USDA guidelines and checked by a certifying agent:

– chickens must be fed certified-organic feed (grown without the use of pesticides or chemicals and containing no animal by-products, antibiotics, or GMOs)

– chickens cannot receive drugs, including antibiotics and hormones but not including vaccinations

– chickens must have access to the outdoors (see: Free Range).

Pastured: Though not an official USDA label, “pasture-raised” chickens are able to roam and forage on grass, seeds, insects, and so on during the day, but are kept enclosed at night.

Retained Water : Any reported water weight absorbed by the chickens during the post-slaughter chilling process, as required by the USDA. You will find this listed as a percentage (ranging from 8 to 12), or sometimes as “added moisture,” but 0 percent or “no retained water” is preferable. This is mostly found on fresh chicken, which often has some extra liquid in the package