🐔 Pecking Away at Poultry Certifications

Policy: After last week’s edition on the future of regenerative poultry, we received feedback from readers, particularly on the producer-side, on the need to clarify terminology used to describe poultry systems. We welcome this discussion! This week’s edition focuses on providing context for deceptive marketing and labeling practices in the poultry industry - beyond the virtually meaningless “antibiotic-free” and “cage-free” labels we touched on last time.

Similar to the grass-fed label we have touched on previously, along with certifications in general, the pasture-raised label in poultry has various definitions and no strict regulation from the USDA. At stake is more than just a pedantic debate: producers are doing different practices that provide a different series of environmental benefits, animal welfare benefits, and nutritional benefits that must be distinguished. With the average retail sale price of pasture-based chicken breast meat coming in at over 5x the cost of conventional breast meat, consumers deserve to know they’re getting what they pay for. 

Many products with the label “pasture-raised” can follow USDA guidelines for what’s called “free-range.” USDA documents define “free-range” for poultry as having "continuous, free access to the outside throughout their normal growing cycle” - note the use of the words access and outside. It is entirely possible for a “free-range” bird to never leave the indoors for more than a few minutes a day, and only go on to dirt, gravel, or pavement outdoors. This has caused major scandals previously, but the practices continue.

More empirical research on poultry behavior when given the option to go outside or remain indoors is needed. If the birds do not venture far from their house, then access to hundreds of acres of pasture will not be utilized unless they are moved. This will lead to overgrazing around their house and subsequent land degradation. In addition, one of the biggest issues with sustainable poultry production, manure deposition, remains. There are still proven benefits to free-range systems. For example, free-range eggs are Vitamin D enriched and there tends to be better animal welfare. However, the lack of standardization and the broadly acceptable forms of “free-range” make it difficult to accept as a quality control indicator.

However, groups like the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association present an alternative definition for “pasture-raised.” Poultry are rotated frequently (ideally daily) to fresh pastures, be it in fenced areas or mobile shelters. The idea is total integration (not access) with pastures with the proper infrastructure of water, shade, protection, and feed to supplement the foraging of insects and grasses. To make this pasture-raised poultry scale, automated technologies for rotations are needed, along with creative uses of land. This is still an emerging practice, based on the works of pioneers like Joel Salatin, that can lead to:

  • Environmental Regeneration: Particularly in a multi-species grazing system, chickens work in tandem with native ecosystems and livestock to store carbon in the soil and restore degraded land. Rather than being a nuisance, chicken manure is naturally spread over the land and serves as a natural soil amendment. Though more field-level research and data should be published on these benefits, various case studies from American farms exist.

  • Nutritional Density: pasture-raised chickens have 407% more vitamin E, 52% less saturated fats, 91% more Omega 3 fatty acids than non-pastured chicken, while pasture-raised eggs have 73% more Vitamin A, 200% more Vitamin E, and 286% more Omega 3 fatty acids. The ongoing Mother Earth News nutritional analysis also points to increased Vitamin D content and beta-carotene content, but not in a manner distinguishable from free-range. Furthermore, the muscle fibers developed from movement on pasture potentially make chicken meat tastier.

  • Animal Welfare:  chickens raised on pasture and silvopasture are healthier. Especially with these slow-growing breeds attuned to pasture, they will eat a more diverse diet that impacts their own nutritional health, have more space, and receive more fresh air and sunlight. Additionally, their leaner frames will allow them to move around to find feed.

Private 3rd party certifications and the National Organic Certification pose their own problems, as the sheer number of certifications even within organizations leads to confusion by making the system more opaque for consumers, and more expensive for producers. For example, a “vegetarian-fed” label demonstrates that a chicken was not fed animal byproducts, but chickens are naturally omnivores - they eat small critters and bugs - so it is not actually a label of quality. The Global Animal Partnership 4(Pasture-raised) label, which is highly respected, only requires pasture access. It does, however, promote slow-growing breeds and many other important features of a better poultry system for the future. The “Certified Humane ”pasture-raised label, though fraught with its own complexities and internal politics, does emphasize six daily hours of outdoor space and 108 square feet per bird outdoors.

Rather than diving into a proliferation of standards and logos, there are two key next steps: for starters, the USDA should step in before pasture-raised poultry scales and provide clear guidance on which terminology refers to specific on-farm practices. Second, producers and entrepreneurs should provide maximum data transparency, particularly regarding environmental effects and their grazing protocols, to demonstrate the efficacy of their system. The best way right now for a consumer to know if their poultry is pasture-raised is to know the farmer and engage them via social media or to scour online documentation. Though the onus is on consumers to vote with their wallets, this is a pivotal moment for stakeholders who want a regenerative poultry system to collect and keep publishing ecological and animal data on their specific approaches. Only with this growing, shared body of knowledge can producers hone their practices, entrepreneurs create new technologies, and consumers educate themselves.

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