This morning I received an email asking about whether or not our chickens were antibiotic and hormone free. Let me start by saying that this is far from a stupid question, however, it did really get me thinking about how little the average person is educated on the food that they are consuming.
Labeling standards are confusing & it’s time that we as producers address them. In my own personal opinion, labels & definitions are not created by those on the frontlines of the industry. Instead, they are worked out at corporate headquarters with large scale suppliers sitting around a table with people bending words to fit their narrative & marketing strategies. Whether it’s eggs or livestock, there are so many terms that raise questions in my mind about if the definitions are to benefit the producer or the consumer.
Let's dive in...
Free Range - the birds must be “allowed access to the outside,” according to the USDA. This means that they can live the majority of their lives in a confined space, with pens, so long as they have a small door opened to the outside for them to access. Not that they actually do go outdoors. It also means that the chickens can live most of their lives outdoors, retreating to their coop only during poor weather or to seek safety from predators during the dark hours. These are majorly different practices, both falling under the exact same definition.
Antibiotic Free - Mainly seen on poultry labels but is not a term that’s approved or regulated by the USDA at all. Producers are putting this on their labels as a marketing tactic & all that it actually means is that chickens have not received antibiotics seven to fourteen days before slaughter. Another important thing to note, chickens who have been administered antibiotics are diverted from human consumption. I don't know about you, but I don't know too many farmers that are adding the cost of antibiotics into their farming practices for fun. Antibiotics are used when other methods have been exhausted and it comes down to the well being of their flock or herd.
Cage free - a term regulated by the USDA that simply put means that the hens that the eggs come from are not caged. They can “freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food & fresh water during their production cycle.” There are no restrictions on how many birds can take up this “open space” indoors & the label does not require that birds have any access to the outdoors.
Non GMO - There are currently 10 GMO crops that are grown in the United States, many of them being crops that we do not regularly consume for food. Corn, soybean, cotton, potato, papaya, summer squash, canola, alfalfa, apple, and sugar beet make up the full list. Having Non GMO labels on things in the grocery store that wouldn't possibly be a GMO to begin with causes a lot of confusion with the consumer. I have personally always advocated that things should be labeled if they are GMO, rather than if they are not. The aisles would look a whole lot different at the grocery store & fear-based-marketing by big food business would decline.
Local - they must come from a flock located less than 400 miles from the processing facility OR within the same state. This means that eggs purchased in New Jersey can actually be coming from North Carolina under this label. I don't know about you, but something coming from 4 states away doesn't seem very 'local' to me.
Pasture Raised - not a term that is regulated by the USDA but typically implies that animals were raised in a pasture where they have ample space to roam and forage grasses & provisions provided from the natural environment. Typically, the definition also includes movement to fresh pasture but not under any specific frequency or timeline.
I’ve even seen labels that say “vegetarian-fed,” which in my opinion is meritless considering that chickens are omnivores. Bugs, worms, and all of the other crawly things around the farm are flock favorites. Are you guaranteeing that they haven't been consumed? Impossible. Hormone free? Another worthless label considering hormones and steroids in the poultry & pork industries are banned by the FDA.
The final piece of guidance that I would like to note is that once a farm receives approval to use these regulated terms & labels on their products, they are not being inspected to ensure that these practices are actually happening and continuing to happen on farm. & while I am not calling anyone a liar, when I see a certain commercial of ten happy hens on lush green grass outside of the chicken house soaking in the sunshine, I have to roll my eyes.
A lot of information was laid out for you but after reading this I have got to ask, what is more important...the store bought label or knowing your farmer? We are not anti big industry here at Hidden Creek Farm but we sure as chicken shit are anti fear-based marketing.
Still have questions? Please, by all means, do not hesitate to ask. We would love to have an open dialogue conversation with you here on our farm about our very own practices & leave the labels at the supermarket.