Decoding Your Chicken


In an ideal world, we would know all there is to know about the food we put in our mouths. That’s a tall order, so many of us rely on food labels to educate ourselves about our eats. Chicken products alone have over a dozen different labels that can be slapped on them.

Here are some basic chicken label definitions:

Cage-Free: Chickens raised for meat are not kept in cages (unlike egg-laying hens), so this label doesn’t mean a whole lot. Basically, it says that the chickens were able to roam freely but not necessarily with access to the outdoors.

Free Range or Free Roaming: Chickens with this label were provided shelter, food, fresh water, and outdoor access. However, this access could be something as simple as a dog door that they may or may not know how to use, and the outdoor space would likely be fenced and/or covered with netting. Neither the size of the outdoor space nor the amount of time the birds spend outside is regulated.

Humane: There are many different groups that offer these labels but their standards vary widely. Here are three of the most common:

  • Animal Welfare Approved is seen by many as having the most stringent guidelines. Chickens with this label are able to behave naturally (roosting and foraging), have access to water, the outdoors, and shelter, and they must not be overcrowded. Additionally, they are not confined or de-beaked and are not genetically engineered or given growth hormone, nor can they eat genetically modified foods.
  • Certified Humane: Chickens with this label had access to clean food and water and had room to flap their wings and take dirt baths. They were not given growth hormones or antibiotics (except for disease treatment). However, de-beaking is still allowed, and outdoor access is not required.
  • American Humane Certified: These chickens had access to clean food and water and were not overcrowded. They may have been de-beaked and did not necessarily have outdoor access.


Natural: Contains no artificial colors or ingredients and has been minimally processed. This label must include a description of what is meant by “natural.”

No Hormones: Hormones are never allowed in poultry production. So if this label is used, it must be followed by the statement: “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

No Antibiotics: This chicken was raised free from non-therapeutic antibiotics. If antibiotics were used to treat a disease in the chicken, there was a withdrawal period (usually several days) before the chicken was slaughtered, so there is no antibiotic residue in the meat.

Organic: The chickens weren’t given medications or antibiotics. They were fed organic feed and had outdoor access. Organic feed means that any fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides the farmers used to produce it were from natural sources.

Pasture-Raised: This label is unregulated but, in general, it should mean that the chickens were outside much of the time and had shelter and access to fresh vegetation. Usually, they were either kept in a small shelter (with outdoor access) that was moved daily, or a bigger shelter (with outdoor access) that was moved occasionally but included a fenced area that was moved daily.