Free bird!

by Ari LeVaux

Whole Foods describes its nonorganic chicken, produced in Pennsylvania by Bell & Evans, as “barn roaming.” This pretty term invokes images of frolicking chickens, but all we really know for sure is they’re stuck inside some kind of structure.

According to a Bell & Evans representative, that company doesn’t use “barn roaming” to describe its chickens, so I asked Whole Foods what the phrase means. A representative told me, “There is currently no clear regulatory definition of the term ‘barn roaming.’ We expect our suppliers who use this claim on their products to use a reasonable definition and we expect the claim to be truthful.”

Unfortunately, opportunistic ambiguity is typical with poultry and egg labeling, where the number of loosely defined marketing terms dwarfs the number of legal terms. Terms like “happy chickens,” “ethical eggs,” “pasture raised,” “naturally nested,” “free roaming,” and my personal favorite, “wild hens,” mean whatever the producer or vendor wants them to mean – which is to say they’re meaningless.

It’s tempting to assume “barn roaming” means something like “cage-free,” meaning the chickens are stuck in a barn, but not locked in cages within the barn. This would be something worth bragging about if some commercial meat birds, somewhere, were in fact raised in cages. Laying hens are often caged, but meat birds aren’t, even in worst cases of confinement farming. They are, however, often crammed together in a structure, which could be construed as “barn roaming.” If so, KFC and Perdue could use “barn roaming” to describe their chickens as well. In fact, Perdue does label its meat “cage-free.” This is like calling it “chicken meat, from chickens.”

A similar bit of marketing word-play is the all-too-common claim that chickens or eggs are produced “with no added hormones*.” The asterisk, mandated by USDA in such claims, calls out a footnote explaining that no hormones are USDA-approved for chickens. Since eggs and meat from hormone-pumped chickens essentially doesn’t exist, the hormone-free claim is pure smoke and mirrors.

Leslie Kline owns Good Egg Farm in western Montana. Her eggs, packaged in reused cartons with her label affixed, show an American flag’s worth of red, white and blue hues thanks to the diverse breeds she raises. Her chickens have access to a rotating series of green pastures full of plants and bugs, and spend their days scratching and pecking.

Despite her birds’ constant access to pasture, Kline doesn’t use “pastured” to describe their eggs, “because when they step out their door in the morning they are on bare dirt, and have to make the effort, which not all of them do, to find the pasture.”

Charlotte Vallaeys of the organic food watchdog group Cornucopia believes Kline is being too hard on herself. “There’s no legal definition (for pastured eggs), as with most labels for eggs other than organic. However, I don’t agree that it wouldn’t be accurate to call (Kline’s eggs) pastured.”

Unlike Kline, most commercial producers use any good-sounding label they can possibly justify – an easy task given the plethora of ill-defined poultry and egg labels. But there are a few terms with specific, legal meanings:

-Organic means the animals are fed organic grain free of animal products, have access to a rooster (or vice versa, if you’ve ever witnessed chicken sex), and have unspecified access to unspecified outdoor conditions. Beak trimming, in which the point of the beak is cut off so the chickens won’t peck each other, is allowed. If done properly, beak trimming won’t prevent chickens from hunting in the dirt, but if the chickens are given enough personal space there wouldn’t even be a pecking problem.

- Natural is a USDA term meaning no extra ingredients or colorants are added, and indicates nothing about the bird’s life.

- Chemical-Free is a term prohibited by USDA in this context.

-Free-range legally applies only to meat birds, meaning they have unspecified access to unspecified outdoor conditions. In the context of eggs, “free-range” has no legal meaning.

- 100% vegetarian doesn’t mean the chickens are vegetarian, only that their feed has no animal products. Chickens will eat insects, worms and any other form of meat they can. And if they’re allowed outside, they will.

- United Egg Producer Certified could be called “Certified Caged.” Each chicken is guaranteed 67 square inches of cage space (an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper, by comparison, is 93.5 square inches).

- Humanely Raised, a National Chicken Council label for meat birds, presumes that anything short of waterboarding is humane. The chickens can be crowded into dim warehouses with less than a square foot per bird. (See “barn roaming.”)

- Certified Humane, American Humane Association Certified, and Animal Welfare Approved are all third-party certifiers with no links to industry. They do an earnest job of protecting the well-being of commercial chickens. Flock density is considered in square feet per bird, rather than birds per square foot. Of these, Animal Welfare Approved has the most rigorous standards for guaranteeing chicken happiness.

In 2008 California passed Proposition 2, which restricts egg production from caged hens. A similar law was passed in the European Union. Many California egg factories are considering moves to more cage-friendly states - Nevada, Idaho and Georgia are all wooing them. Kline thinks it’s only a matter of time before the cage ban goes nationwide.

Meanwhile, those Whole Foods “barn roaming” meat birds are still locked inside Pennsylvania warehouse barns. For a factory farm, Bell & Evans has established baseline living conditions that are relatively stress-free and humane. The feed is domestically grown and free of hexane-extracted soy. Consumer Reports named Bell & Evans chickens some of the cleanest in the industry. For a factory-farmed bird, those barn-roamers may be as good as it gets. They may not be living the dream, but aren’t living the nightmare either.

But if you want meat or eggs from bug and plant-eating chickens that lived some semblance of a natural life, you probably won’t find them at Whole Foods or almost any other supermarket. Try the farmers market, your local hippy co-op, or seek out family farmers in your area. •



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