Our Broilers vs. Commercial Chicken


Let’s talk about organic vs. free-range vs. your average commercial poultry as compared with our broilers.  After going through our first slaughter on Sunday, it seems fitting to determine if our birds truly did lead happier lives than commercial birds.  The average lifespan of a meat bird is 6-7 weeks; ours lived for about 3 months.  They arrived September 16, 2010.  Now on to the details:


For poultry to be certified organic, the USDA requires among other things that,

“The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole…”  And  in another USDA document that, “Agricultural products labeled “100 percent organic” and “organic” cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.”
(I suppose non-organic foods can be produced using sewage sludge – yum.)

  • Organic, as regulated, does not mean pesticide free. The law permits the use of “botanical pesticides”  (.pdf). Colorado State has a list of pesticides that are acceptable in Organic farming, and as you will see on the list some of them are labeled as very dangerous and are indeed known carcinogens.
  • Organic does not mean animal welfare. As the Humane Society points out that, beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Also, the Cornucopia group–an organic watch dog agency– released a report, “When Cornucopia staff visited Shamrock’s operation we found inadequate, overgrazed pasture adjacent to their milking facility, and we were told by Shamrock employees that the confined cows had not been out in weeks,” Kastel stated.  Federal organic regulations require that cows be grazed. (Click here to view a photo gallery from the Shamrock operation.)”
  • Organic does not mean fair trade or fair labor.  The organic label certifies how food is grown; it does not denote fair labor practices.  http://greenlifestylemagazine.net/issue-1/organic-does-not-mean-fair-trade.php
  • Organic compliance is verified through third-party auditing; however, the certifiers, are paid by the farmers and manufacturers they are inspecting. Depending on several factors, the fee can be hundreds or thousands of dollars, according to the New York Times.  And goes on to report that,

“Arthur Harvey, a Maine blueberry farmer who does organic inspections, said agents have an incentive to approve companies that are paying them.
‘Certifiers have a considerable financial interest in keeping their clients going,’ he said.”


The USDA has no specific definition for “free-range” beef, pork, and other non-poultry products. All USDA definitions of “free-range” refer specifically to poultry.[6] Claims and labeling using “free range” for industries outside of poultry are therefore unregulated. The USDA relies “upon producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.”  What you get from your USDA-label of FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING:

Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

That’s it!  It’s that easy! (And that meaningless!)

  • Free Range does not mean animal welfare, unfortunately. In many free-range operations, there is room for less than 25% of the birds to be outside simultaneously.  Some birds are confined seasonally, some birds have less than one exit door per 1,000 birds.  Some birds labeled as “free range” are provided with less than than 1.0 sq ft of outdoor space per bird.
  • Free Range does not mean fair trade and fair labor, just as with Certified Organic above.
  • Free Range and/or Organic may or may not mean healthier (some studies do show eggs from free range chickens are healthier)

And the Humane Society elaborates that,

Free-Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of “free-range” for some poultry products, there are no standards in “free-range” egg production. Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access.  Since they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

And let’s not forget…

As per the USDA, a food labeld Natural is, “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as – no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)”
What’s a consumer to do?
We decided the best course of action was to not buy any of it, but to instead buy from local farms where you can visit the farm and see first-hand the conditions our future meal is kept in.  A great way to find local farmers looking to sell eggs is to search your local Craigslist for farm fresh eggs or the like. After visiting a few of these such farms, we fell in love with the soft clucking of hens and decided to raise our own chickens. 
 Alternatively, you could check out Cornucopia Institute’s scorecards for various industries. They rate companies on a bunch of different criteria.  For instance, the egg criteria includes criteria such as: commitment to organics, ease of outdoor access, ecological sustainability, and more.  Today was the first time I learned about this organization, so I don’t know if they are legit, getting paid off, etc.  If you research this option, I’d be interested in your opinion on their fairness.

Debeaking or Beak Cutting:


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