Free Range Chicken: Promise or Inside Joke?
Free Range vs Pastured
Although this topic has been discussed a lot (heritage chickens are the new poster girls for sustainable eating) I still find that most of my savvy friends don’t really understand the whole “free range” chicken scam.
So, here’s my streamlined synopsis of a typically convoluted USDA regulation: According to the USDA, chickens raised for meat may be labeled as “free range” if there is access from their shed or quonset hut to the outdoors. In other words, a small door opening to a concrete pad would qualify. News flash: chickens are timid, clubbish kind of critters. It’s the rare chicken that would push through that door and venture out alone. And what would be the value of their stroll on the carport even if they got there?
As a result of this loosey-goosey standard (with all of its green marketing panache), few producers using the free range label are actually raising chickens that have ranged freely around a yard filled with grubs, shrubs and worms. Even the practices of green giants like Petaluma Farms (who sell the ubiquitous Rocky, Rocky Jr., and Rosie chickens to Whole Foods) appear, at best, intentionally vague when it comes to free range.
As a strike back at this ineffective and misleading labeling, more and more small artisanal growers are choosing to call their birds pastured. While this term is not monitored by the USDA, at least it hasn’t been co-opted by big producers who are most concerned with appearing eco-friendly. Of course, I’m sure there are folks big and small misusing this label claim, too. Ironically, these two terms should be describing the exact same growing standards: a chicken raised as your grandfather would have. But, functionally, they mostly don’t.
So far, pastured most often means chickens were actually raised on pasture land as much as is practical. (Chickens need to spend their nights in a pen.) This differentiation is critical for ethical consumers trying to parse out their food dollars. We can understand that a small farmer, who is actually making room for his birds to hunt and peck around a yard, may need to charge us more than we pay for commodity chickens (and, in many cases, more than for free range birds). Pastured, organic chickens are available online for about $20 to $25 apiece, plus delivery.
For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with flavor and genetic diversity, farmers taking the trouble to raise pastured chickens are mostly choosing heritage breeds. (White Rock and Cornish Cross are the most common commodity chicken breeds which have the financial advantage of maturing very rapidly. They also have the big breasts Americans love).
In most cases heritage birds, which take much take much longer to bring to maturity (2 to 3 times as long) present more pronounced flavors and firmer flesh than the blandly homogenous commodity birds. In fact, my chef friends find that different heritage breeds have very distinct characteristics. Some are the classic juicy roasters, while others yield robust flavor best suited to braising or grilling.
My friend and meat mentor Carrie Oliver of The Artisan Beef Institute conducted a comprehensive blind tasting of 4 heritage breeds in Toronto this year. “Tastes Like Chicken?” Carrie asked the crowd. The response was,” Yeah, and …” Tasters and chefs alike were surprised at the variation in both flavor and body shape among the 4 birds. One was described in tasting notes as earthy (many people noted that it tasted like turkey), one fruity, one herbal, and one “like grandma’s chichen soup, comfort food.” Carrie’s favorite for roasting because of the fatty breast and flavorful skin: the Buff Orpington (the name alone would sell me!)
Pioneer sustainable farmers like superstar Joel Salatin maintain that pastured chickens tend to be a happier and more well balanced lot. It makes sense to me that that all of that strutting and foraging would result in deeper flavors and a firmer texture. I’m sure that breed-specific flavor profiling will become a more exact science as these different varieties become more widely available.
It’s a good thing that the focus of concerned consumers has turned to the provenenace of chicken. We may be only barely in time. Chicken consumption in America (99.9% commodity, of course) has increased dramatically in recent decades. In 1966 the average American ate 28 pounds of chicken, compared to about 85 pounds this year. I’d say it’s damned important that all of that meat is the best quality we can manage and that those millions of animals have received the best possible treatment.
If you’re interested in ordering a pastured bird or 2, the American Pastured Poultry Producers provide a list of producers by state. Many local grocers will carry pastured birds and your CSA may have them as an add on.