The September/October 2012 issue of Cooks Illustrated magazine features a story this month called “The Whole Chicken Story.” It gives an unbiased look at whole grocery store chicken – comparing labels and processing claims. Here is a synopsis:
What that chicken’s label means:
Air Chilled – The chickens are not put into the chlorinated water bath, but circulate in a cold room.
USDA Organic – Considered the gold standard, the poultry must eat organic feed that doesn’t contain animal byproducts, be raised without antibiotics, and have access to the outdoors (how much is not regulated).
American Humane Certified – “a program that verifies the use of standards that promote animal health and reduce stress, but these practices are widespread industry norms like ensuring that chickens are stunned before their throats are cut. Some standards aren’t humane: beak cutting of egg-laying hens is allowed.”
Raised Without Antibiotics – not strictly enforced, eggs are allowed to be injected with antibiotics and feeding antibiotic laced ground chicken feathers is also allowed.
Natural and All-Natural – USDA has defined these terms as just fresh meat, stipulating only that no synthetic substances have been added. Producers may raise their chickens under unnatural conditions, feed them unnatural diets and inject them with broth and are still allowed to use this term.
Hormone-Free – The USDA does not allow the use of hormones or steroids in poultry production, so phrase on a label is pointless.
Vegetarian Fed and Vegetarian Diet – Not regulated by the government, so it’s just the producer’s claim, which may mean feeding the chickens cheap “vegetarian” bakery leftovers.
Highly Recommended Brands: Mary’s Free-Range Air Chilled Chicken, Bell & Evans Air Chilled Premium Fresh Chicken
Recommended: Springer Mountain Farms, Coleman Organic (or Rosie Organic), Empire Kosher
Recommended with Reservations: Perdue, Gold Kist Farms, Tyson (which needs an ingredient list on the label!)