By Chelsea Fisher
Chicken is one of this country’s most popular sources of protein, an essential for most meat eaters and a frequent alternative to red meat. Lean and adaptable, the ubiquitous bird is generally easy to cook, and provides B vitamins and selenium. Half a chicken breast will also provide up to 27 grams of protein with only 3 grams of fat, and only one gram of saturated fat.
But poultry can raise more questions for today’s smart shopper than it may have in the past. Why, for instance, is one type of chicken more expensive than another when they look the same? What’s the difference between free-range, organic, and certified humane?
- Certified: According to the USDA website, certified “implies that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Agriculture Marketing Service have officially evaluated a meat product for class, grade, or other quality characteristics (e.g., “Certified Angus Beef”).” This is a very basic label that shows the USDA has inspected the product.
- Free Range or Free Roaming: According to the USDA, this means the producer must demonstrate that the animals have access to the outside. However, the department doesn’t give a minimum requirement for space, or specify the quality of outdoor space. So the “free-ranging” area can vary from a wide-open grassy yard to a small patch of dirt. For these reasons, this label isn’t particularly useful and can even be misleading.
- Natural: The USDA allows the label “natural” to be applied to any “product containing no artificial or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter it.” Because this term is vague the USDA also requires that the label explain why the product is labeled “natural”. For instance, “no artificial colors, or flavorings.” So grab your some bifocals and read the fine print.
- No Hormones: In the United States the use of hormones on poultry is illegal; thus the use of the label “hormone-free” only states the obvious and is not allowed unless it also says that federal law prohibits the use of hormones in poultry.
- No Antibiotics: This label can be used if the producer verifies that the animals were raised without antibiotics. Because more than half of the antibiotics used to treat animals are the same as those used to treat humans, the overuse of antibiotics in animals can lead to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria for all of us. Keeping food animals in close confinement without the use of antibiotics can result in deadly mass illnesses, so antibiotic-free chickens are usually those raised with the most space and freedom.
- Organic: In order to receive the USDA certified organic seal, producers must comply with the organic program rules. This seal implies that the chickens were raised without antibiotics in an environment that requires attention to sustainability and ecological accord. It also requires that their feed comes from vegetarian organic sources, and that there is no contamination with non-organic food items during processing.
- Certified Humane: The Certified Humane Program ensures that animals are treated humanely during the entire production process. It prohibits the use of crates, tight enclosures, and any growth-enhancing product. This label is not regulated by the USDA, but rather by participating animal rights agencies and organizations such as the Humane Society and the ASPCA. In general, if you can afford to buy a Certified Humane product, you are encouraging ecological responsibility.
- Farmers’ markets are now available in most cities, and though the prices are often higher than in supermarkets, the advantage is that you can talk to the vendors to learn how the animals were raised. Sometimes it’s too expensive for a small farm to go through the rigors of getting the USDA organic seal, but that does not necessarily mean the chickens are of lesser quality. In fact, chickens from a local family farm may just be your best bet for quality.
- Cost is also a factor at organic grocery chains, such as Whole Foods, or even big chains like Safeway, which now offer a variety of labels in its chicken aisles. If cost is a factor for you, remember that the recommended serving size of meat is 3 ounces, that’s about the same size as a deck of cards, or about half a breast of chicken. So, eating less may mean you can afford to buy less of a better brand.
- When buying ground chicken, look for lean ground breast meat. Other types may contain dark meat and skin, leaving it with almost as much fat and saturated fat as ground beef.
- Buy chicken and other meats right before checking out at the grocery store and make sure they are cold. Wrap chicken in a separate bag to ensure there is no cross contamination between chicken and fresh vegetables. Most markets will wrap chicken separately, but make sure they do.
When I came to the U.S. in 1985, I had lived in Paris for a dozen years before, and was used to shopping locally, and daily, for food. For the most part, chickens were farm raised, beef came from cows grazing in fields, and fruits and vegetables were local and seasonal. It was delicious. The food I bought in New York supermarkets just didn’t taste the same. The quality and freshness weren’t there.
But over the last 20 years, that has changed. Now we have farmers’ markets, with fresh, seasonal, local produce, and farm eggs and cheeses. Organic eggs and free-range chickens started to show up in supermarkets, then organic produce. Finally there was food available everywhere that tasted as good as I’d bought in France. It’s great to be able to choose quality again.
When preparing chicken, some people may decide to rinse the chicken before cooking. This is not a necessary step, and may cause cross contamination in the kitchen. If you decide to do so, make sure to disinfect your sink and surrounding areas afterward. It’s best to keep a separate cutting board for meat and for vegetables, and chicken should be cooked to at least 165 degrees to ensure safe eating. And always wash your hands after handling raw chicken.