Growing up, I was drug to the grocery store the majority of the time. Usually on Saturday. Course, we lived about 10 minutes or so from the store - depending on traffic and which one we went to. I never really liked grocery shopping. But, I have to admit, my mom taught me a lot about picking out fresh produce and meat. I still don't really like grocery shopping.
Companies spend millions (or more) on advertising. They do their research and take time to figure out consumers - their habits, their likes, and what will grab their attention. Today, as a consumer, you have to invest time and do your research. Often times, what a company markets as "natural" doesn't go along with our definition of "natural." Take the time to read labels, research brands, and ingredients and the process that was used to make the product. Know where your food is from.
I learned several years ago, there are some major differences among poultry brands and how they are raised and processed. I used to purchase my poultry at WinnDixie, until we realized our oldest daughter had food intolerances that manifested through her itchy, irritable skin. Since the dark meat of chicken is said to hold more toxins than the white meat, we decided to try Greenwise chicken breasts. Mind you, I don't like white meat very much. It always comes out dry and my preference has always been the dark meat. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the difference in taste of the Greenwise breast meat compared to regular chicken breasts. They were actually juicy with a good flavor. And our daughter seemed to be able to tolerate the Greenwise much better than regular chicken. I put my investigative hat on and found two distinct differences in their poultry - no antibiotics and the meat is air-chilled instead of water chilled. This is when I realized how big of a difference processing can make. I believe the air-chilled makes for juicier, tastier meat. I also believe the reason my daughter could tolerate this better is because it is air-chilled and not water-chilled. When the poultry goes through the water chiller, they absorb a certain amount of the water. This water is chlorinated at the rate allowed by the FDA for drinking water - so its the same as city tap water. I honestly don't know how much chlorine residue is actually absorbed into the meat, I only know that she could eat the Greenwise chicken without any problems. Since we had previously learned that chlorine bothered her, I suspected this was a major factor for her. Since then, I have looked into other differences with poultry sold in stores. While much has to do with marketing, there are a few things that seem to make a big difference.
I have heard for years that poultry are given hormones which contributes to girls going through puberty at younger ages. Actually, hormone and steroid use in poultry was banned during the 1950's. So don't let the "No Hormones" listed on the package of chicken sway you to any certain brand. ALL companies can claim this and you will also see a statement on the package that the FDA prohibits hormones to be used in poultry.
While most meat birds reach their desired weight of 4 to 6 lbs (broiler size) in about 8-12 weeks, the Cornish Cross, the breed used by commercial broiler growers, can reach broiler size in about 6 weeks! This cross is know for its fast growth rate, weak legs, and large body. This is the industry standard and is also used by most small farms and raising pastured meat birds. When most people see these birds, they tend to assume that the fast growth rate is due to hormones in the feed. When in reality its the desired characteristic of the hybrid.
Let's look at some common terms that are showing up on poultry meat labels.
Cage Free - Commercially grown meat birds are raised in chicken houses with controlled environments and are allowed full access to waterers, feeders, and each other as they freely roam around the house. The only time they are in a cage are when they are collected and transported to the processing plant. So, in reality, ALL poultry meat is actually cage free.
Free Range poultry are raised in regular commercial chicken houses with doors that allow for access to the outdoors. Free range doesn't mean the chickens actually go outside, just that they have access to the outdoors.
Vegetarian-Fed - I have seen this on poultry labels more recently. In the past, animal by- products and even poultry by-products were added to poultry feed because it was a great protein source. However, it was removed from poultry feed shortly after the first mad cow disease outbreak in the United States in December 2003. Poultry are commonly feed corn or soy based diets and unless it is non-GMO Verified or USDA organic, you can assume the corn or soy are genetically modified.
Non-GMO - As of right now, poultry are not genetically modified. So far, I have only seen this on one brand, Springer Mountain, and they are referring to the feed being Non-GMO verified. Non-GMO verified is not the same as organic. Although none of the feed is genetically engineered, it may have been grown by conventional agriculture methods.
Natural - some brands claim they are 100% Natural, yet when you read the fine print you discover they are injected with broth and retain up to 12% liquid. However, this is not the case with all chicken labeled "Natural.There are companies that really mean natural. The only water that is absorbed is a little when it goes through the water-chiller. Look for the amount of retained water on the label. If there are ingredients listed on your chicken label, ask yourself why, do some homework, and find another brand.
Antibiotic Free - Any meat that carries this claim has not had antibiotics at any point in its life. If it does receive antibiotics, it looses this designation and gets processed with others that are not antibiotic free. Since most plants process both antibiotic free and conventional meats, they are processed separately. If the plant is large enough, the antibiotic free may have its own dedicated processing line. In smaller plants, the lines are shared and certain protocols are followed to ensure the antibiotic free meat doesn't come in contact with conventional meat that may have received antibiotics. There is usually down time so the line and chillers can be cleaned. Or, they may run the antibiotic free birds first. When I worked for a feed manufacturer that milled both medicated and non-medicated livestock feed, there was always a certain order they milled feed so that the lines could be flushed when necessary. They were very careful not to contaminate the non-medicated feed with residue from the medicated feed. Its very much the same with meat processing.
Organic - There are many guidelines that has to be followed by the producers and processing plants when something has the USDA Organic seal. First, there is the process that is gone through to receive that seal. They are inspected at least twice a year and they have to keep accurate records documenting everything that is used in rearing and processing the birds. If it contains the USDA organic seal, there are certain synthetic and non-synthetic products that can be used, which are stated in the FDA National List. The bird has to have been fed organic, non-gmo feed from birth, and cannot receive any antibiotics. Unless the label states "Organic" or "Non-GMO verified", you can assume the birds were fed conventionally raised feed, which may include genetically modified ingredients grown with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers.
Fresh - The chicken label says "fresh never frozen", yet the chicken inside feels hard as a brick. You wonder how that is possible if the chicken is fresh. Well, here's why. Fresh chicken is never stored below 24 degrees F during transportation or sitting in the meat case. Frozen chicken is stored at 0 degrees or below.
Find out what small farms or CSAs are in your area that offer poultry or other meat for sale. When you buy from small local farmers, you can talk directly to them and find out how they raise and process their meat or produce. Not all of them will be certified organic, but many of them adhere to the same guidelines. Two of my favorites are Pastured Life Farms (www.pasturedlife.com) and 4 Star Farm (4star.farm/homepage.)
I want to encourage you to read labels on any meat you purchase and take the time to look for the fine print. By knowing what to look for on the packaging of poultry meat, you become a smarter consumer. And by being a smarter consumer, you have better control over your food budget.
Do you have a favorite brand of poultry? If so, why is it your favorite?