Chicken Buyer's Guide
How to buy the healthiest chicken at the grocery store.
In an impressive statistic, reports say that the average American buys 85 pounds of chicken a year . And with good reason: chicken is a good source of protein and low in fat and calories, particularly sans skin and unbreaded. But simple succulence, economy and sheer versatility are the fundamental reasons why chicken is so well loved. Here are some guidelines for choosing the healthiest chicken at the supermarket.
The best way to ensure you’re buying the freshest chicken is to look at the fat—it should be white to deep yellow, never gray or pasty. Make sure the package is well wrapped and free from leakage. And don’t forget to check the date on the package.
What Labels Mean
Free Range: While this term might imply more, this USDA-regulated term means only that the birds are granted access to the outdoors.
Certified Organic: This USDA-regulated term means that all feed given to chickens must be certified organic, which means no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, animal by-products or other additives. Certified organic poultry must also meet "free range" criteria. Additionally, federal regulations call for "shelter designed to allow for (i) natural maintenance, comfort behaviors, and opportunity to exercise; (ii) temperature level, ventilation, and air circulation suitable to the species; and (iii) reduction of potential for livestock injury," but there is no guidance regarding what chickens require in these areas.
Raised Without Antibiotics: This term indicates that the chicken was raised without antibiotics for health maintenance, disease prevention or treatment of disease. Medications not classified as antibiotics may still be used.
No Hormones: The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in poultry, so while the label "hormone-free" is accurate, it doesn’t set one chicken apart from another.
Natural: One of the most widely used labels, the term means that no additives or preservatives were introduced after the poultry was processed (although certain sodium-based broths can be added; read the fine print if this is a concern). "Natural" has absolutely nothing to do with standards of care, type and quality of feed or administration of medications.
Percent Retained Water: To control pathogens like Salmonella, producers must quickly lower the temperature of birds during processing. Most do this by immersing the slaughtered chickens in a cold bath, which causes them to absorb water. The USDA requires producers to list the maximum amount of water that may be retained. Some producers "air-chill" their birds, a process that does not result in any retained water. In a small January 2010 Consumer Reports study, birds labeled "air-chilled" (a term that is not regulated) were less likely to be contaminated with pathogens.
Certified Humane Raised & Handled: Overseen by a nonprofit endorsed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, this label ensures your chicken received basic standards of care. For instance, CHRH producers must provide at least six continuous hours of darkness per 24-hour period (many birds live in round-the-clock light to hasten growth). Feed must be fresh. Original guidelines required producers to provide about 1 square foot of space per chicken; however, this is currently under review. This third-party certification does not have any rules about access to pasture.