Organic, Free-Range, Natural? Here’s A Handy Guide To Chicken Labels

It used to be easy to shop for chicken at the grocery store. But, in today’s world of information and choice, consumers are presented with seemingly endless chicken options—free-range, cage-free, organic, antibiotic- and hormone-free. We all want to get smarter and make the right choices about the food we buy for our families, but how do we keep it all straight?

In order to help you (and ourselves), we dug into the list of over 20 different chicken labels created by Consumer Reports and assembled our own encyclopedia for easy reference every time you head to the store to buy chicken.

The Ultimate Encyclopedia for Chicken Labels

No Antibiotics: Farmers use antibiotics to keep chickens healthy, but there are other methods that can be used instead of antibiotics. When a chicken has a label of “No Antibiotics,” that means the chicken never ever had antibiotics administered, including while in the egg.

Cage-Free: This label means nothing, since this is the industry standard. Most of the time, the cage-free label is only used for egg-laying hens. Also, this doesn’t guarantee that your chicken ever went outside, or even had access to the outside.

Non-GMO-Verified Project: The bird has to have less than 0.9 percent of its feed genetically modified. 

Free-Range: The most hilarious definition ever. Officially, “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” The definition is as vague as the term “free-range.”

How often should the chickens be outside? What is the size of the range? Does a window of a bus count as outside?

This definition basically says that if chickens have the door open but are too chicken to go outside, that’s a free-range chicken. Also, not all free-range chickens are organic.

No Hormones: This label is pointless, since all chickens have zero hormones injected in their bodies.

USDA Organic: Every item on the following list needs to be checked off before it’s labeled “USDA Organic:”

  • Vegetarian diet
  • Non-GMO
  • No antibiotics (only after the shell breaks open or if it’s deemed medically necessary. Farmers can give chickens antibiotics during their first day of life.)
  • Annual inspections
  • Access to the outdoors (no specific standards on size of door, size of outdoor area or amount of time spent outdoors—sounds a lot like the free-range definition)

This means every organic chicken is free-range, but again, the opposite is not necessarily true.

Natural: This label is useless and misleading. All chickens come from nature, so this just means no artificial flavoring or preservatives were added to the chicken.

Naturally Raised: This basically means the chicken was fed organic feed (vegetarian diet, no GMOs, no antibiotics, no hormones).

Made In the USA: Another useless label. All chickens bought in America are patriotic chickens who stay at home. There are a select few Canadian chickens that come to the U.S., and zero chickens are coming over from Asia.