With mounting concerns about mass-produced and factory-farmed poultry, we looked into some alternatives, including the best certified humane and organic chicken you can buy online and where to get organic chicken at a good price.
If switching to organic or cruelty free and/or humanely raised chicken has piqued your interest, you wouldn’t be alone. It’s no great secret that the U.S. poultry industry has problems and, for years now, has fallen under the scrutinous eye of informed consumers, journalists, and activists alike. Look no further than Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” or Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”—both devastating indictments of widespread factory farming—to discover the horrors of a system that’s evolved to grossly emphasize efficiency over quality. All of this (mostly) to the detriment of animals and consumers.
There are two major problems within the wider poultry farming industry: the breeding and raising of chickens on an industrial scale, and the agricultural practices that are implemented to feed all these birds and keep the enormous supply chain moving.
Breeding & raising practices include a litany of dubious standards including acute selective breeding to make birds unnaturally big and meaty (but not healthy) and fed antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. They get sick, of course, because living conditions are often dismal and unclean, which brings up another set of moral issues often employed by animal rights groups. It’s true, the majority of poultry bought, cooked, and eaten in the U.S. is riddled with antibiotics, harvested from unnaturally bred and highly stressed birds that exist only for a short time in conditions most of us would likely condemn if we knew about them.
Farming practices enacted to grow feed for chickens and other animals is the more underreported problem plaguing both the industry and the planet. Because of the size of the industry and the demand for output, massive quantities of GMO row crops—namely corn and soy—or the “grain economy,” is required to sustain such an enormous supply.
Due to the unprecedented yet self-imposed demand for so much cheap chicken (roughly 50 billion chickens per year) industrial agriculture practices must be employed. That translates to more chemicals, pesticides, fertilizer, and genetically modified crops. Not only does this impact the health of the crops which are then fed to the birds and, in turn, to us, but soil health deteriorates and the entire system becomes more and more polluted each year.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 26 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing while 33 percent is used for growing feed (chicken feed alone represents 9 percent of row crops). When you consider the impossibly poor farming conditions for animal feed (most of which is inedible for humans) you realize that’s a whole lot of chemicals going into the earth, water, and air.
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I, like many, reached a tipping point after taking a somewhat dystopian dive into the shady chicken farming and breeding practices, deciding the least I could do was investigate options for poultry that existed outside of the traditional factory-farm apparatus.
What’s the Solution?
In turns out there are indeed options, and they might be more affordable than you think. Matt Wadiak, former Blue Apron COO, recently launched Cooks Venture, a company and farm that raises, slaughters, and sells heirloom poultry using humane breeding and raising practices but also—and just as importantly—employs regenerative farming to keep soil health intact and limit the overall impact poultry farming has on climate change. Cooks Venture heirloom chickens are raised on quality feed, air-chilled, pasture-raised with unrestricted access to the outdoors, and Animal Welfare Certified—the last of which is a rather important and rigorous label to earn (more on that in a minute).
It’s Wadiak’s goal for his farm’s practices to go mainstream and with Cooks Venture having already scaled up to deliver about 700,000 chickens per week, it doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Cooks Venture, along with other humane and sustainable poultry farms, is up against massive systemic and societal obstacles, including deep poultry lobby roots with even deeper pockets to influence regulatory policy. But also highly ingrained consumer habits that have adapted to the cheapening of chicken and poultry.
Over the years meat, and specifically poultry, has become (comparatively) cheaper and cheaper via factory farming and is in no way keeping up with general inflation. “Too cheap” if you ask Wadiak, as the price cuts have come at the expense of both the health of the planet and the animals we then put into our body—not to mention cruel farm and slaughterhouse practices.
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A humanely raised, organically fed whole chicken is likely to cost you between $12-$23 (Cooks Venture chickens can be had for as little as $12) but when you consider one could easily feed a family of four or a single person for a few days it doesn’t seem like that much. On the flip side, paying $6 or $8 for factory-farmed Perdue chicken may be an attractive proposition to pad your bottom line, but stop to consider all the associated risks and problems and it’s hard to argue in favor of meat that cheap. Something has to bear the brunt of such inexpensive poultry and it very well may be you and your health.
Chicken Labels to Consider
Sifting through the labels and terminology when buying meat and poultry can be tricky. With so many different standards it’s helpful to have a way to decode. To complicate matters, only some of the labels refer to USDA regulations while others, like “all-natural,” are simply marketing buzzwords and mean nothing.
These first two labels signify some of the most rigorous standards and are the best indicators you are getting a humanely raised poultry product.
According to the ASPCA, this label represents a significant improvement over conventional standards and means the animal has outdoor access for ruminants and for pigs and poultry when accompanied by the words “free-range” or “pasture-raised.” If animals are raised indoors, it means more space, bedding, and enrichment are required and subtherapeutic antibiotics are prohibited. Standards extend to transport and slaughter too, and compliance is assured by independent on-farm auditing.
Animal Welfare Certified
This six-level rating program for animals raised for meat and eggs is slightly more complicated. According to the ASPCA, each successive level represents progressively higher welfare and includes all requirements of those below it. Cage confinement, hormones, and subtherapeutic antibiotics are prohibited at all levels, standards extend to transport and slaughter, and compliance is verified by auditors on every farm.
Read more about both these labels here.
The “organic” label is a good one to look out for but keep in mind it really just means that the chickens have been fed a certified organic diet and—but not always—means the farming practices used in feeding the birds are better. But it doesn’t signal anything about a chicken’s quality of life or humane practices during their life and/or death and, in many cases, organic chickens still withstand a lot of factory farming’s most notorious practices.
No Antibiotics or Raised Without Antibiotics
This means the chickens were not routinely given preventative antibiotics, which many deem harmful, but it doesn’t ensure they weren’t given antibiotics if they had gotten sick.
Because there’s no legal definition of this term, “pasture-raised” is hard to verify. The USDA requires labels to be “accurate” but without any formal guidelines, this one has quite a bit of wiggle room but implies birds spent significant time outdoors and in a pasture.
This is another label you’ve likely seen on sides of egg cartons and chicken packages that is misleading once you dive into the criteria. “Free-range” is meant to indicate that chickens had access to the outdoors but there is almost no requirement for how much or how big that outdoor space is. In many cases, poultry coops are set up so that the chickens don’t even use the outdoor space.
This is a marketing term and means nothing. There are no requirements for a chicken to be labeled all-natural and if you see it, you should probably assume it is anything but.
The Best Humanely Raised Chicken You Can Buy Online
If you’re concerned about eating humanely raised chicken that was bred and fed using sustainable and natural processes, your best bet is to do some research and find a good farm/producer and a consistent way in which to buy them. Luckily, a lot of the best chicken producers can be bought online so you don’t have to rely on your local market to carry them.
Founder and CEO Matt Wadiak’s goal is to improve the overall farming and feeding system which supports the massive poultry industry and bring it to scale (they’re currently distributing upwards of 700,000 chickens per week) so more people can eat better chicken raised on environmentally friendly feed. You can get their G.A.P Animal Welfare Certified heirloom chickens which are bred to be biologically sound, gut-healthy, and tasty (I’ve had them and they are!) directly from Cooks Venture’s website for as little as $15 when you buy six (free shipping on all orders). Or snag one bird for about $11 via Fresh Direct.Buy Now
Note that this new player in the meat delivery game doesn’t have humane chickens but does have a good selection of certified organic options including this 1.5-pound pack of chicken breasts for under $16.Buy Now
This chicken from specialty food store D’Artagnan is certified humane, air-chilled, antibiotic-free and pasture-raised making it one of the best choices for humane chicken you can buy. Right now, the high-end retailer is selling two frozen birds (3-3.5 pounds) for just $33 (plus shipping). Worth noting not that not all products by this poultry brand are certified humane.Buy Now
This poultry producer meets a lot of the top and most rigid criteria including Certified Humane and USDA organic. You can snag a three-pound chicken for under $18 and have it shipped to your door. Or buy smaller cuts separately like chicken breasts, legs, wings, and thighs.Buy Now
Certified Organic Smart chickens are fed an organic grain diet, are free-range and certified humane by the Humane Farm Animal Care. All Smart chicken products are raised without the use of antibiotics. A 4-pound bird cost about $17.Buy Now
This farm in upstate New York has been providing antibiotic and hormone-free, certified humane chicken since it opened in 1992. Get a package of large chicken breasts for less than $11.Buy Now
You’ve probably seen these chicken products and other products in your local market. You can rest assured they use organic chicken in all their goods but note only the chicken hot dogs are G.A.P. Animal Welfare Certified.Buy Now
Note: ButcherBox is currently not accepting new customers but you can sign up to get on the waitlist.
All of this online butcher’s chicken is G.A.P Animal Welfare Certified. While you can’t place single orders or single whole chickens you can choose monthly boxes that include chicken like the popular Beef & Chicken Box.Buy Now
Header image courtesy of Getty Images.