Chicken is one of our most versatile foods. Inexpensive but filling, used in dishes around the world, used for the humblest soup and the most complex gourmet cuisine, chicken is nourishing, tasteful, and healthy.
Lately, health concerns about pesticides used in chicken feed combined along with ethical concerns about how chickens are treated have led to the growing popularity of organic chicken.
Just 20 years ago, organic foods were niche, and shopping for them was inconvenient, requiring trips to specialty stores. The cost of organic food also put it out of reach for many families.
Fortunately, as the demand for organic has grown, more suppliers began producing humane, ethically raised livestock. Now, almost anyone can afford to cook with organic ingredients.
Organic chicken is a particularly good option for those who are looking to eat healthy on a budget. Chicken is a versatile type of poultry and can be roasted, fried, sauteed, baked, and ground up for salad.
Almost every part of the bird can be eaten, and its bones can be used for soups and stocks.
1. What is Organic Chicken?
The ubiquity of organic foods might make us forget that it's a relatively new phenomenon. The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1990 that required the government to identify what synthetic substances were allowed in food sold in the country.
It wasn't until ten years later, however, that the government finished drafting the rules about what could and could not be labeled "organic" - less than 20 years ago!
To be certified organic, chicken must be raised according to strict federal guidelines which govern what they ingest and where they live.
The feed given to organic chickens must be free of animal by-products, antibiotics, and genetically engineered grains. The feed must also be grown without "persistent pesticides" or chemically-based fertilizers.
Rules for organic chicken also prohibit giving the birds any drugs, including antibiotics. (In the U.S., the USDA has prohibited the practice of giving hormones or steroids to any type of commercial chickens, not just those that are certified organic.)
Organic chickens must also have access to the outdoors, unlike non-certified organic chickens, which are sometimes kept locked in cages 24 hours a day.
Every certified organic chicken has to be raised organically starting two days after hatching.
When looking for organic chicken, make sure to only purchase products that are certified "organic" by the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, which regulates the production of food in the U.S. and enforces the rules around organic products.
2. What Are the Benefits of Organic Chicken?
It's not just a fad: organic foods provide real benefits, not just for the consumer but for the environment, the chickens and even the economy, as well.
By choosing organic chicken, the consumer lowers their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.
Because organic chickens aren't given antibiotics and are given feed that hasn't been persistently exposed to pesticides and antibiotics, consumers can avoid secondhand consumption of chemicals they may not want to ingest.
Many people believe that organic chicken tastes better. Raising organic chicken requires greater attention to the chickens' health and wellbeing, which may explain the meatier and more flavorful final product.
Organic chicken is also more ethical than its non-certified counterparts. Organically raised chickens have access to the outdoors, their food is free of environmentally harmful pesticides, and they don't rely on antibiotics that carry the risk of creating bug-resistant bacteria.
While the rules don't require that organic chickens be given free-range access to pastures, many organic farmers go the extra mile in ensuring the welfare of their stock.
Reducing the reliance on pesticides has positive effects well beyond the chicken farm. As the demand for organic products grows, pesticides become less and less useful for the average farmer.
The result is cleaner agriculture and less pollution all around.
3. How Is Organic Chicken Different from Hormone-Free, All-Natural, Antibiotic-Free or Cage-Free Chicken?
Navigating the chicken aisle can get confusing. There are a lot of labels, some of which are nearly meaningless, some of which are ill-defined, and some of which are used in different ways by different producers.
The United States laws prohibit the sale of chickens with hormones, so "hormone-free" describes all chicken, not just the organic; so hormone-free is not a meaningful term.
"All-natural" means that the chicken has no added artificial ingredients or preservatives. That's important, but it's also true of most chicken sold in grocery stores; so again, don't choose your chicken based on whether it is "natural."
All organic chicken is free of antibiotics, but not all antibiotic-free chicken is organic. The term means that the chicken has never been given antibiotics (which, remember, is one of the requirements that have to be met before a chicken can be certified organic).
Avoiding antibiotics can mean a better living environment for the chicken since it takes more effort and care to raise chickens without resorting to antibiotics to maintain their health.
Avoiding antibiotics also has advantages both for human health and for the environment. The excessive use of antibiotics can cause bacteria to evolve resistant strains that are immune to common antibiotics.
Limiting the use and intake of antibiotics can reduce the danger of drug-resistant bacteria for the individual consumer and the population as a whole.
Finally, "cage-free" can be a misleading term. As with "antibiotic free" chicken, all organic chicken is cage free but not all cage-free chicken is organic.
Legally, "cage-free" just means that chickens are given access to the outdoors, not necessarily that they are given free range over a pasture.
While this is more humane than the alternative, it is not the same as "free range."
4. Where Can You Buy It?
Every good grocery store carries a variety of organic chicken products. If you can, also check with your local butcher's shop.
The workers there may be able to point you toward a supplier you haven't heard of. Farmers' markets are wonderful sources of organic meat, and you can speak directly with the farmer about any questions or concerns you may have.
Believe it or not, you can also buy organic chicken online. Chicken is packed in dry ice and delivered swiftly to your door. This is an especially good option for those of us who want to buy in bulk.
5. Price Range
Because of how it is raised and fed, organic chicken costs more than non-certified chicken.
Depending on the cut, the farm, and the retailer, organic chicken can range from $4 per pound to $10 or more per pound.
How We Reviewed
The following products were reviewed based on the following parameters: Features, Pros & Cons, Price, and Where to Buy. In assessing the product, we considered its flavor and consistency.
In assessing the brand, we also considered how ethically it treats its livestock and the trustworthiness of the business.
Overall Price Range Of This Product
The price of organic chicken depends on several factors, including quality and the cut of meat. Boneless chicken breasts tend to be around $10 per pound; because their weight includes bones, whole chickens tend to be a few dollars less.
We've priced only breasts and whole chickens below.
Unsurprisingly, the more expensive the chicken, the higher quality the meat tends to be. A higher price point also goes along with a stronger commitment to the welfare of the chickens.
What We Reviewed
Mary's Free Range Chicken - Pittman Family Farms
Pittman's Family Farms have been continuously owned and operated by the same family for more than 50 years. Located in central California, Pittman's Family Farms raise free-range organic chicken as well as other livestock.
Chicken breasts cost approximately $10 per pound online. Whole chickens cost approximately $8 per pound online.
Where to Buy?
Mary's Chicken can be found in stores such as Whole Foods or via online retailers.
Founded in 1985 by Ariane Daguin, D'Artagnan began as a producer of foie gras.
Since then, the company has branched out and now supplies not only organic chicken, humanely raised veal and other meat and fowl products, but processed pantry items as well. D'Artagnan farms are based in Pennsylvania.
Chicken breasts cost approximately $11 per pound. Whole chickens cost approximately $5 per pound.
Where to Buy?
D'Artagnan chickens are sold through the company's website, which at the time of writing, was temporarily down.
You can contact the company directly instead at 1-800-327-8245 from Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. EST to find a brick-and-mortar retailer near you or order its delicious chicken from Amazon.
Organic Prairie is a cooperative of independent family farms. For more than 20 years, even before the federal government began certifying organic farmers, it has maintained strict standards of humanely raising its livestock.
The company helped set the organic certification guidelines, and it continues to abide by its principles to this day.
Chicken breasts cost approximately $19 per pound. Whole chickens are unavailable for online ordering.
Where to Buy?
Organic Prairie chicken is available through the company's website as well as in stores around the country.
Bell & Evans
Bell & Evans was established in the late 19th century, and in the more than 100 years since then, the company has continuously evolved and grown.
It is a certified organic producer of chicken, turkey and other fowl. Based out of Pennsylvania, the company has been recognized for maintaining humane living conditions for its livestock.
Pricing is unavailable. Please locate a retailer near you to price Bell & Evans products.
Where to Buy?
Bell & Evans is widely available in grocery stores. Please see its website to find a location near you.
Thrive Market distributes a wide variety of sustainable products, including hypoallergenic bath products and organic foods.
It's a subscription service, and joining as a member reduces shipping costs substantially. This makes an excellent choice for families that want a convenient but ethically responsible option for shopping.
As a retailer, Thrive Market does not provide information about the farms from which it purchases its chicken products.
This box costs approximately $10 per pound.
Where to Buy?
Thrive Market's items are available online through its website.
The organic chicken brand you choose will depend on the price point you are willing to pay, the dinners you are planning to cook, the quality you are expecting in your food and the importance you place on the ethical treatment of the chickens.
Organic Prairie's chicken breasts are of extremely high quality, but the expense may be excessive for a casual dinner.
Pittman Family Farms and D'Artagnan both provide high-quality chicken at a reasonable price. If you have to narrow your choice down to two regular suppliers for your chicken needs, go with those.