Conventional, Organic, or Pastured Chicken...Does it really matter??

Many of us know, without knowing the specifics or the gory details, that factory-farmed animals are treated poorly, injected with all sorts of nasty things, and we want to stay away from them. But when we’re at the store and see chicken, sometimes in a form that barely resembles the fluffy feathered animal that it came from, and we see the difference in price between conventional and organic and the even bigger difference with pastured chicken, we may wonder, “Does it really matter??” After all when it’s all said and done and the chicken is sitting in the butcher’s case, it all pretty much looks the same, so our shrewd selves take over. “If I save some money on chicken a few weeks in a row, I can buy that (fill in the blank) I’ve had my eyes on…” In May 2015 the average price of whole conventional chicken was $1.48/lb. Last week, I paid over $2/lb. for organic broccoli. Hmm…what’s going on here??

Conventional Chicken
Here are just a few of the gory details... In the United States, 8.5 billion chickens are raised for meat per year (that’s over 23 million everyday)--99% of them are factory farmed. The natural life span for a chicken is 6-10 years, but factory-farmed chickens are brought to slaughter weight in just 6 weeks. Excessive feeding, antibiotics, 24-hr light for sleep deprivation to ensure constant feeding makes this possible.

80% of antibiotic sales in the U.S. are used for livestock and poultry. 95% of these antibiotics are added to water and feed and used sub-therapeutically, meaning they are used mostly to make the animals grow faster or to prevent disease in substandard living conditions. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, between 2001 and 2010 the FDA reviewed 30 different antibiotics being used in this way and found that none would be approved for use now, but no action was taken to discontinue their use. Increased antibiotic resistance amongst bacteria and the creation of so-called superbugs pose a public health crisis as antibiotics for human use decrease in their effectiveness. According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, antibiotic-resistant infections kill more Americans than AIDS. In fact, Europe and Canada have bans on using human-use antibiotics on animals. A Consumer Reports study done in 2014 found that of over 300 raw chicken breasts sampled, including some organic, 97% harbored potentially pathogenic bacteria and almost half had antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

Ok, so maybe you already knew about the antibiotic use. But did you know that factory farmed chicken feed often includes caffeine (to keep them awake so they eat more), arsenic (to make their flesh pinker and combat infection), and the active ingredients in Benadryl, Tylenol, & Prozac (to counteract stress, which makes the meat tough)?? Farmers are often required to feed their chickens a proprietary blend, and they don’t know what’s in it. The industry estimates that 90% of broiler chickens processed in 2011 were fed arsenic. 

Some labels that are meaningless:
Hormone-free: all chickens are
Cage-free: No chickens that are raised for meat are kept in cages.
Natural: means absolutely nothing

Organic Chicken
Organic chickens cannot be given antibiotics. Their feed is organic, vegetarian, and GMO-and-synthetic-pesticide free. They must “have access to the outdoors,” but there are no specifications regarding maximum density, size of door leading to the outdoors, nor the amount of time is spent in the outdoors. Because there is no regulation, many organic chickens are raised under conditions not so dissimilar from their conventionally raised brethren.

Their feed is mostly composed of corn and soy, for no other real reason except that they’re cheap because they’re two of the most subsidized crops grown in this country. Remember corn and soy are sources of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, too much of which can lead to serious health issues. To learn more, I discuss this in a previous post. Vegetarian-fed chickens promote good feelings amongst consumers, but there’s a problem. Chickens aren’t vegetarian and can’t thrive on a vegetarian diet. Because these grains aren’t the chickens’ natural diet and lack certain nutrients critical for survival, synthetic methionine, an amino acid, is added to the feed. Because the methionine comes in multiple forms, one of which the chicken cannot metabolize, there is residual methionine in the chicken. According to the USDA, excess methionine has been shown to be significantly toxic in other animals, such as cats and rats. It elevates circulating homocysteine, commonly considered a significant risk factor in cardiovascular disease. In May, the Center for Food Safety unsuccessfully challenged the National Organic Program to ban this additive in favor of more regulated access to pasture and addition of natural sources of the amino acid


Pasture-Raised Chicken
The USDA does not currently regulate the term “pastured.” However, it generally means that the chickens are out on pasture, foraging on bugs and worms, as is a part of their natural diet, but also occasionally get supplemented with feed. Third party certification organizations, such as Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), are setting stringent husbandry standards around this practice, including limiting flock size, minimum space allotments for chickens, access to pasture, maximum rate of growth and other humane practices. For comparison, a factory-farmed chicken has less than .65 sq. ft. of space, while the minimum space requirement for AWA is 4 sq. ft. with room for the chickens to spread their wings and no physical manipulations. Here is a complete list of their guidelines.


animal welfare approved

In addition to being sooo much more delicious (don’t take my word for it), pastured chickens have a superior nutrient profile, including many times more omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamins A and E. You might notice that the fat on pastured chickens is much more yellow, almost orange at times. This is a result of the relatively increased amounts of chlorophyll consumed through green vegetables, often culled from the farm.

So it seems that inexpensive food comes at a cost…no big revelation. But remember this when you’re standing in front of various types of chicken, in their faceless and featherless anonymized forms. As the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. Chicken is no exception.



Larb Gai Chicken Lettuce Cups

Larb Gai (Laotian Chicken Salad with Herbs)

3 Tbs toasted rice powder, or ¼ cup rice
1 lb. skinless, boneless chicken, cut into small pieces almost ground
¼ cup shallots, very thinly sliced
1 Thai red chili, seeded and minced
¼ cup lime juice
3 Tbs fish sauce
2 tsp sugar
½ cup combination rau ram, mint, and/or cilantro, torn into pieces
1 head butter lettuce, leaves separated

If you don’t have rice powder, toast the rice in a pan over medium heat until browned. Cool and grind in a food processor, mortar and pestle, or coffee grinder. In a saucepan, bring 2 ½ cups water to a simmer and add the chicken just until cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove chicken from the water and save the stock for another use.

In a bowl, mix the chicken with the rice powder, shallots, chili, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Gently combine with most of the herbs, saving some for garnish.

To serve, scoop the chicken into individual butter lettuce leaves and garnish with more herbs.