Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little,
Cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more
– The Music Man, Meredith Wilson
There is a fun scene in the classic musical The Music Man where the ladies of the town are gossiping and singing the song Pick a Little Talk a Little, behaving very much like a flock of chickens. In the 1962 film version, the camera goes back and forth between a small flock of hens and the singing townspeople. Sadly, outside of occasional film scenes, many people have never actually seen a flock of chickens behaving naturally. We flock instead to the grocery store to pick out packages of skinless, boneless chicken breasts and frozen chicken nuggets. We buy eggs with pictures of barns and free range chickens on the lid. Maybe we look for the cheapest prices (cheep cheep cheep) or perhaps we feel good and even pay a little more because our own favorite products are labeled “all natural” or “cage free.”
Your grocery store may have all natural and organic poultry products side by side, adding to the confusion. Other terms, such as “vegetarian fed,” “free range,” “humane certified,” “raised without antibiotics” and “farm raised” may just make your head spin as you attempt to choose the best real food for your family. What do these claims mean? Are you getting more nutrition or less chemicals? What were the animals eating? Were they fed GMO’s?
Unfortunately, most of the claims made on our poultry labels are completely unregulated. The label all natural, for example simply refers to ingredients present in the final product. It has nothing to do with how the animals were raised. Similarly, the term “cage free” doesn’t necessarily mean that the animals got to ever go outside. “Farm raised” means even less. All US chicken is raised on farms, even if most of those farms look more like factories. Antibiotic free doesn’t mean that the animals never received any antibiotics. It only means that the final product is free of antibiotic residues. Even the label raised without antibiotics only includes some types of antibiotics. A hormone free label must be accompanied by a disclaimer that hormones are not ever allowed in any poultry. Yet, manufacturers still state hormone-free on the label as if this claim makes their product superior.
As a former vegetarian who cares about animal welfare, I do pay attention to humane certification on the products I buy. A label that includes the Certified Humane® logo must go through an inspection process under an independent nonprofit organization. The American Humane Certified label is also externally regulated through the American Humane Association. When organic isn’t available, Certified Humane or American Humane Certified are my next choices, in that order. Click on the above links to learn more about the specific requirements of humane labels and a list of certified humane poultry and egg producers. Then you can ask your local grocer or co-op to carry these products.
Still, humane certification means nothing with regard to what the animals are eating. Many poultry and egg products carry the label “vegetarian fed.” This label interests me because chickens are not vegetarian animals. Given the chance, a chicken will scratch around in the dirt, seeking out tasty bugs and grubs. Creative farmers like Joel Salatin like to put this natural tendency to work on their farms to help control pests. Chickens that graze the pasture a few days behind larger animals, such as cattle, will help spread the manure and eat the larvae of pest insects. It’s a brilliant system that mimics patterns found in nature. It is definitely not a vegetarian diet. At the same time, the vegetarian fed label does protect us from feed that contains animal byproducts and poop from factory farmed pigs and chickens. Yes, the industry does feed dried poultry waste to poultry as a percentage of total feed, especially for egg production. The remainder of the typical chicken diet is corn and soybeans, genetically modified, of course.
There are three ways to avoid poultry and eggs that have been fed genetically modified corn and soybeans. The first is to raise your own chickens and feed them non-gmo feed. The second is to purchase chicken and egg products from local farmers who seek out or grow their own organic, non-gmo feed. The third option is to only purchase certified organic poultry and eggs. Organic certification is highly regulated with regards to animal feed and the ability of the animals to exhibit natural poultry behaviors. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always mean that animals are outside grazing around and eating bugs. Large organic poultry producers are only required to provide a mimimal amount of outdoor access, which may or may not be utilized by the animals.
As organic feed is becoming increasingly hard to find and expensive, some small-scale, local farmers can hardly afford to sell the animals they raise. One farmer in my area raises organic turkeys for her own use but recognizes that she would not be able to make a profit if she sold them to others. Chickens require a slightly smaller investment, but processing fees are per animal. These fees can really impact the price of poultry, especially when organic chickens are typically younger and smaller. When supporting smaller farms, it’s important to recognize that they do not benefit from the economies of large scale production. They pay more for everything and must pass those costs on to the consumer. The only place that they do save money is through direct sales to consumers. That is why farmers’ markets and on-farm sales can be comparably priced to organic products found in supermarkets, which have typically gone through both a distributor and a store.
One comment I hear about the free range chicken that is available from local farmers in my area is that it has more flavor. I don’t very often eat factory farmed meat any more, but I have to agree hands down. Local, free range, preferably organic fed chicken and eggs look and taste different from those that are raised in large scale confinement operations. You have to try them to know what I am talking about. People will often say that something “tastes like chicken” when they really mean that it doesn’t have much flavor of its own. Chicken that lives a natural life, however, really tastes like chicken, truly flavorful chicken. In our house, we love Indian and Thai curries, but it seems a shame to cover this rich, flavorful chicken in a sauce. It tastes good by itself with minimal salt and seasoning. Curries are reserved for store-bought chicken and breast meat that is left over from making chicken stock.
One way to afford local and organic chicken on a modest grocery budget is to buy and utilize the whole bird. As a farmers’ market manager, I hear from both elderly customers and immigrants that they are excited to find meat in a more whole form, with the bones, for their family recipes. I rejoice to see young people also starting to buy more whole chickens and bone-in cuts of meat. These consumers are educated about the many benefits of cooking meat on the bone. Benefits that include not just taste but also added minerals and lower prices. Leftover chicken bones are the primary ingredient in home-made chicken stock. Stock is one of the most nutritious and healing foods available. It is the center of the very healing GAPS Diet and an economical way to enhance digestion and absorption of our food. It is also the reason that many of my friends think I’m such a good cook. A little stock goes a long way to add flavor to casseroles, meat loaf, grain dishes and curries without resorting to artificial flavors and MSG.
I think that many, I dare say most, American consumers are out of touch with the origins of their food. They are turned off by meat that has visible skin and bones. Many consumers don’t have the faintest idea how to prepare chicken from scratch. Maybe you eat out a lot or just buy frozen chicken strips and microwave dinners. I mentioned before that I am a former vegetarian. If I can now eat meat that looks like it came from an animal, I do think that anyone can get the hang of it. If you are new to cooking your own chicken, you can certainly start where you are with processed organic versions of chicken patties and nuggets. These products will be much more expensive than their conventional counterparts. They may also contain added ingredients that you will want to minimize in your diet. When I returned to eating meat, I started with ethnic food and deli food from my local co-op. I very gradually started trying some of the recipes at home. Over the years, I have challenged myself to continually eat lower on the hog (or chicken), so to speak. I’m now proud to report that I’ve cooked and enjoyed everything from cow tongue to chicken feet. You may or may not get to this point, but I hope that you will discover the joys of organic, local chicken and a good home-made chicken stock. Watch for my own easy recipes in future blog posts.