Supermarket Angst Part III: How to Buy Better Poultry

By Carrie Kirby on 30 June 2009 8 comments
Photo: nukeit1


As I wrote in previous installments of my Supermarket Angst series, I've been using extra money in our grocery budget to improve the quality of the food I buy my family. Buying organic for produce with the highest danger of pesticide contamination was an easy choice, but I've found it difficult to know what's worth the extra money when buying animal products -- eggs and dairy products, for instance.

Today I'm tackling one of the most baffling buying categories, for me -- poultry. Unlike beef, where I know I want hormone- and antibiotic-free, I'm unclear on whether chickens and turkeys are given hormones and antibiotics to begin with. I've seen labels like "natural" and even "Amish" and "Kosher" on chicken -- do those mean it's healthier? And what about turkey? I don't think I've ever seen special labels on that, although I have heard about people spending big box on organic turkeys at Thanksgiving.

First of all, let's look at the most expensive category: organic poultry. Birds sold as organic must eat organic feed, which should in theory reduce the chance of pesticides building up in the meat that we eat. But according to a 2004 Business Week story, pesticides in meat is a much smaller health concern than pesticides on produce:

"While 47% of the produce sampled by the USDA in 2002 had detectable pesticide residues, only 16% of grains and 15% of meat tested did. Most of the residues found in meat (almost always in the fat) were from long-banned chemicals like DDT, which remain in the environment and is not a problem organic farming methods can solve."

That passage was enough to convince me not to worry about pesticides in my poultry. But is getting hormone-free birds another reason to buy organic? According to the United States Department of Agriculture's food labeling FAQ, no.

"Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim "no hormones added" cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says 'Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.'" 

However, the USDA does allow poultry producers to use the phrase “antibiotic-free.” As with beef and milk, antibiotic overuse in raising fowl is more of a public health concern than a worry for the consumer of the resulting food. The routine use of antibiotics when raising livestock, it is feared, can contribute to the creation of superbugs resistant to current antibiotic drugs.

After reading the USDA's sheet, I would feel comfortable skipping “organic” birds in favor of those labeled “antibiotic free.” Of course, at many stores you'd be lucky to find one or the other, so you might end up buying organic just to be sure you're not feeding the antibiotic problem.

What about “natural” or “all-natural” chickens? Can I count on those to be healthier than other birds? According to the USDA, all “natural” means is that it doesn't have added color or other artificial ingredients. Yegads, the idea of farmer's injecting their dead birds with color isn't even a problem I'd contemplated. But no, I'd say a bird labeled "natural" isn't worth much or any extra money.

Then of course, just like with eggs, there is the issue of how one's chicken dinner was treated while it was alive. This is mostly a matter of deciding between caged versus cage-free versus free-range birds, but it is possible to go beyond those labels, which I'll address in a minute. I wasn't even sure if the crowded cage conditions I'd heard about for laying hens also went on in the meat chicken industry. But this paper, found on PETA's Web site, makes the life of a broiler chicken sound even more miserable than that of a laying hen. The paper also touches on the miserable working conditions in the poultry industry, which are documented in plenty of places.

The short answer is yes, meat chickens are typically raised crowded into cages, and so buying something labeled “cage-free” or “free-range” would be a plus. But as with eggs, the meaning of these terms is pretty limited and by no means ensure that the bird you're eating had a good or even bearable life.

In fact, the unsettling reading from the link above has the effect – as I'm sure many things found on the PETA Web site do – of making one wonder if it's possible to eat meat at all without being complicit in the mistreatment of both animals and workers. After all, even a chicken labeled “free-range” may well suffer a slow painful trip through the slaughterhouse. I've never seen a “cruelty-free” label on a frozen chicken.

Of course, you might say that eating meat CAN'T be cruelty free because you have to kill the animal in order to eat it. But personally, I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian, and I'm not interested in becoming one. I'd just prefer if the animals I eat suffer as little as possible in the process of being turned into my dinner.

Ideally, I'd like to buy chickens who lived in a place like Polyface Farms, which I read about in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Polyface moves its chickens from one patch of pasture to another throughout the summer, using portable pens to ensure they always have access to their favorite greens (clover, apparently) and lots of juicy bugs, not to mention space to move and fresh air. But finding a supplier whose environment meets those standards takes more research than reading labels in Super Target (where I typically buy my antibiotic-free chicken on sale), and yes, it will cost me more too.

This site lists some farmers in all states that pasture their poultry like Polyface does. Apparently I could order whole chickens that have had pretty good lives, and are antibiotic-free, from one of these places for around $2.75 a pound. That's not bad when you compare it to the price of beef, of course, although a whole chicken contains a bunch of bones, skin and fat that we won't be eating. I could even order a meat share from a Community Supported Agriculture farm that would take care of all my egg, meat and poultry worries at the cost of around $5 a pound – that's my guess of the average cost of what they provide, which would probably be less for the chicken and more for the beef.

Considering that I often find beef and poultry at Super Target that meets SOME environmental, cruelty and health standards for $2-3 a pound, am I willing to sign up for a CSA where I'd pay around twice as much?

I'm seriously considering it. On top of ending my supermarket angst in one fell swoop, the idea of having my meat and egg shopping done for me every other week is a time-saving bonus.

The one thing I haven't had the chance to address here is turkey. Are turkeys caged and given antibiotics? Is there such a thing as a free-range or organic turkey?

I found one good article defining terms that label turkeys -- it basically says that yes, all the same terms that apply to chickens mean the same thing when applied to turkeys. The same limitations apply, too – a package of ground turkey labeled “free range” may have come from a bird allowed very limited access to an outdoor porch or pen while still enduring very crowded or otherwise unfavorable conditions.

So, as you might guess, the more I read about animal treatment on conventional farms, the more motivated I am to buy more-expensive products in dairy, eggs AND meats. Can my family maintain our $80-a-week grocery budget while getting all particular on animal products like this?

I'm not sure, but I think it may be possible. One tactic will involve limiting the meat in our diets. We currently eat meat about five times a week. If I order a $20-per-week meat CSA share, it will provide us with enough meat to eat about three times a week, judging from the list here. Add a vegetable CSA share for around $28 a week, and, at least through the Midwest growing season, I'd have the basics taken care of with around $30 to spend at the grocery store each week on milk, fruits and grains/packaged foods.

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Guest's picture

We do the meat CSA thing, from a local farm. It's more then $20 a week (closer to $40), but it's worth every penny. I get a mixture of pork, beef, and chicken, in ground meat, sausage, and roast form (the chickens come whole), with the occasional other stuff (they do great hot dogs, sometimes we get bacon, a few times I've gotten liver, and almost always we get some extra bones for soup). We actually pay by the month, and usually have some meat left at the end, so every once in a while I just skip a month and we finish emptying the freezer.

Reasons it's worth it:
I don't have to scour my fridge/freezer every time I see Yet Another Meat recall.
It's local, and we usually go to the open house every year to visit.
This one is subjective, but my grocery bill has actually gone down, because the meat tastes better. Instead of buying cheap pork chops from the grocery store, and making some complicated dish to cover up the fact that they're bland, I take the good pork chops, dust them with salt and pepper, and toss them on the grill, which comes out cheaper then the casserole in the end.
Also, because all my meat is in the freezer, I don't have to plan as much ahead. Before we did the CSA, I'd go to the grocery store with good intentions on Sunday, and buy meat for 4-5 meals. Then something would come up, I'd have to work late, we'd get invited to dinner, or I just wouldn't feel like making whatever I had in the fridge, and inevitably something would end up going bad. This way, I only pull out one day of meat at a time, and if something comes up, I just eat it a day later. It doesn't "bunch up" in my fridge.

I have nothing but good things to say about the entire experience - I can't imagine going back to buying grocery store meat again, ever.

Now I just need a local vegetable CSA to supplement it, and I'll have it made (and yes, I've looked, and I look again every 3 months - one will be available eventually).

Guest's picture

Here is a good video on the subject:

Myscha Theriault's picture

Thanks, Carrie! There's one less than an hour from my house. Might make a fun field trip to go and stock up.

Check out my various projects and services at Itinerant Tightwad. I also have a monthly education newsletter.

Guest's picture

I'm glad you mentioned Polyface and farms like it. However, I was surprised to see you mention all the bones, skin and fat you won't be using.

Bones are wonderful to hold onto for making stock (which not only allows you to get some use of the bones, but saves you the $3/box on chicken stock). If you think you won't use it immediately, just toss it in a freezer bag to store until you're ready to make stock (as a time saver, I make the stock in my crock pot while I'm at school or work).

I personally eat the skin, but if you don't, perhaps a dog you know might like it.

As for the fat, I render the fat down and save it for cooking with. Shmaltz adds wonderful flavour to things like the crust for pot pies, frying eggs in or all sorts of other applications. If you're working with chickens that aren't whole, it's even easier to render down the shmaltz. Just skin and de-fat the pieces you're working with and put them in a frying pan on very low heat. Pour off the fat into a container to store it in. From whole chickens, you have to separate the fat from the juices but the extra effort really is worth it. If you store it in the freezer you can get a virtually indefinite life-span from it.

Additionally, when we make stock, I save all the collagen. It's not nutritionally good for much (being a low quality protein), but I've found it works well as a fat substitute when sweating onions and the like. We freeze it in the ice cube tray then transfer it to bags, and my dog enjoys a cube every now and again thawed into his food.

I don't know if that helps justify the higher cost of chickens (to be honest, I'm on a student budget so I only buy chickens when they're on sale, which never includes the special kinds of chickens), but by using all these extra bits that seem superfluous, you not only save on waste but also save the money you'd have spent on the things that're easily made at home using the "waste" portion of the animal.

Guest's picture

Mouseprint just ran an article on Plumping. It was a really good one and probably one more thing you might want to look at before you take your next carton of chicken breast from your grocery store refrigerator.

Guest's picture

Please check out your LOCAL small producers. Call your local custom butcher and ask him if they can set you up with a 1/4 or 1/2 a beef or pig. We sell our extra meat through our butcher -- he has a waiting list of folks and matches us up.

Asking at local feedstores is another way to find small producers.

Guest's picture

Well, here's my thing..We usually buy milk from a local dairy that is pasturized (not homoginized) and I have seriously suggested to my husband that we build some fences and just raise and slaughter our own cows, pigs, and chickens. My great-grandparents ate meat from animals that they themselves raised and vegetagbles out of their own gardens and drank whole, un-homoginized milk. One of my grandmothers even hunted deer and that was a great portion of their diet. Point being, my great-grandparents lived well into their 90s. I truly beleive that this country is full of obese idividuals (I myself tip the scale some) because we are too darn lazy to take proper care of ourselves and eat healthily. The fact that these big companies and growers are just out for the almighty dollar has taken a big toll on the average consumer and we are paying the price! It's sad but in these rough economic times, I find myself having to reach for the cheapest (unhealthiest) foods to feed a large family on a small budget.

Guest's picture

What absolute sillyness! The discussion about eating "Organic" or non-organic meat, vegetables, or fruit. Does anyone know the definition of organic? Well I'll tell you. It means ANYTHING that was a living organism. That includes ALL plants and animals. There isn't any non-organic meat or plants. If it lived, it's organic. PERIOD! So now people have changed the meaning of "Organic" to mean something that was ranched or farmed without the use of pesticides, antibiotics, harmones, etc. What balony. How many of you have heard of one single person who got sick, or worse, died from eating something that was defined as "Non-Organic"? I thought so. NO ONE! That's right. And don't try to include food recalls because of contamination like salmonella or E-Coli. That's caused by bad farming/ranching, butchering, or packaging, not because it was produced as a non-organic food product. Regarding poultry specifically, I do have some advice for buying it. First, save your money. Don't pay extra for poultry labled "Organic". Non-organic is just as safe and nutritious. Next, NEVER buy any poultry that is sold "marinated". It's almost always meat that WAS NOT sold before the "Sell Date". So it's taken to the back again and processed, usually by washing away the film or stickiness that developed over days of exposure. Even worse, some butchers will immerse the meat in bleach, which also removes the foul, fowl smell that developed. Yuck! Then they put a marinade on the meat to cover any more bad smell, and put it back out in the meat case for sale. ALWAYS check the "sell by" dates on a package. If you want your meat marinaded, do it at home and use your own. In case you don't know, the so called "Cage Free" or "Free Range" poultry is still more misleading information. You may visualize birds roaming around a big pasture, eating natural food. Nope. Chicken and turkey growers can't afford that kind if space and time it would take. Remember, they are raising hundreds of thousands of birds. They may not be in a cage, but they're still crammed together in pens and fed special feed for quick growing. So either accept it or become a vegetarian. Forgo the fact that you are an omnivorous animal, best nourished by both meat and plants. You know, I've always wondered. When a "vegan" has a baby, what does she feed it? It certainly can't be milk. That's from an animal. The little rascal must be stuffed with cereal and miss all the anti-bodies supplied in "mother's milk". Poor thing.