If you care about how chickens are raised, it can be confusing when you want to buy a chicken. Here are just some of the certifications and claims made in chicken labeling:
American Humane Certified, Animal Welfare Approved, Cage Free, Certified Humane, Certified Naturally Grown, Certified Organic, Free Range, Free Roaming, Kosher, Natural, All Natural, Pasture Raised, Food Alliance Certified, Pasture Fed, Heritage, Humanely Raised, Standard-Bred, Vegetarian-Fed
Some of these labels come from animal welfare organizations, or producers’ groups, or they’re nothing to do with animal welfare (organic), or they’re actually meaningless (“humanely raised” holds no objective definitional standing, for instance).
But, thankfully, there’s now an unrivaled resource to break through the noise: BuyingPoultry.com. Developed by Farm Forward, a Portland, Oregon, nonprofit, it lists 3,000 poultry products sold at almost 10,000 retailers that carry higher-welfare products, and it grades those products in an easy-to-process way.
The way everyone eats chicken now, you would think it was always the most popular meat in America. Not so. In 1965, people ate much more red meat–134 pounds per year and only 37 pounds of chicken. Since then, chicken consumption has more than doubled, to 90 pounds a year, against 105 pounds of red meat per person.
To meet that demand, chicken farmers have adopted the technology and logic of factory farming. The broiler chicken industry is the “most industrialized sector in livestock agriculture.” Chickens are stuffed into tiny cages, pumped full of food and drugs, and plumped up well beyond their normal size, leading to frequent stresses and injuries in birds. The industry’s workers aren’t treated too well either.
Farm Forward compiled a list of farmers and retailers, then assembled a committee to review the certification standards. It then graded the products two ways: first on a simple “Avoid,” “Better,” “Best” basis, then on a more in-depth “A” to “F” ranking.
Andrew deCoriolis, who led work on the site, says retailers are starting to offer humanely-raised options. “We designed Buying Poultry to help continue and intensify these positive trends. As these supplies increase, the challenge for consumers will be identifying which products are really Better or Best among shelves full of other products that are likely to have come from factory farms,” he says.
Predominantly, though, the industry is still far behind what we might expect. Of the more than 3,000 products on BuyingPoultry, 71% are listed as “Avoid,” 17% are “Better,” and just 12% are “Best” choices. Several of the certifications are of questionable value, according to Farm Forward. American Humane Certified products, for instance, get C and D ranking, because in the words of Consumer Products, the “program does not require producers to meet certain requirements that consumers may expect from a welfare label.” Alliance Certified products get a D. And products labeled “pasture-raised” without additional certifications or claims get a D.
Users can either search by product (e.g. chicken breast), brand (Eggland’s Best), or retailer (Safeway). Or they can search for the highest-welfare products available in their area.
“Now that the site is live, we’re also receiving new information from consumers who submit new data to us via the site,” says deCoriolis. “In the future, I hope a larger percentage of our data can be crowdsourced from our users.