Free-Range Chicken. Free-Run Chicken. Pasture-Raised Chicken. What is what?
When you shop for poultry you probably come across a lot of different terminologies: Free-range, free-run, pasture-raised, air-chilled, raised without antibiotics, antibiotic free, certified organic… it goes on and on. In this article we take a look into the meanings of these labels.
Free-range means that the chickens are not cooped together in a small space or cage. They have plenty of space to roam around and have access to the outdoors.
It is very rare for chicken raised for meat production to be brought up in cages; the cooped-up lifestyle is more typical of factory farmed chickens that produce the eggs we eat.
In Canada it is quite difficult to have real free-range chicken because of the varying weather conditions. Chickens have to be brought indoors during winters, for example.
Most conventional chicken are raised indoors in overcrowded barns where there are poor conditions and terrible odours. These chickens may lead similar lifestyles to cooped up chickens with very little freedom. The space available per chicken is often drastically less than their free-run counterparts.
When free-run chickens are brought indoors, they are given plenty of space to roam around and their environments are well ventilated and clean. The freedom of movement of the animals allows them to maintain a natural level of activity and reduces their stress levels. The typical trademark appearance of, free-range and free-run chicken is recognizable by a more yellow of fat of the skin than the meat of their restrained peers.
If you live in Canada, free-run and free-range is practically the same in the winter. Don’t get caught up over-shopping believing them to be two very different products.
This means the chickens are actually outside on pastures and enjoying the fresh air. Most pasture-raised chickens are raised in mobile cages which allows the farmer to easily move the chicken across the land when a pasture is saturated. The chickens will eat bugs and worms but their diet is almost always complemented with grains. Our Papa Earth pasture raised chicken supplier, Harley Farms, takes it a step above and does not use cages at all. The chickens are actually free to roam in a fenced off area without any other confines; this is the ultimate way of pasture raising chickens.
Raised with or without antibiotics:
You might have seen horror pictures and videos of barns full of chickens with no space to walk, stumbling over each other and barely able to stand up. Many conventional chicken farmers raise chicken with a formula to grow them in the shortest amount of time in the smallest spaces possible. It’s a terrible environment, with the use of antibiotics to keep them alive and gain weight rapidly. It’s become known that some chickens’ legs break because their bones cannot keep up with the quick gains in body mass. To top it all, the smell in these barns is enough to turn the most chicken-loving person vegetarian – Another reason to know where your meat is coming from.
This term can be misleading and does not mean the same as raised without antibiotics. Technically speaking, all poultry in Canada sold has to be antibiotic-free. So, factory farm chicken farmers simply stop adding antibiotics to the chicken feed 10-15 days before slaughter so the chicken meat is antibiotic-free even though all chicken were raised with antibiotics. As the antibiotics are out of the chickens’ systems, meeting this standard satisfies government criteria.
There are a few different labeling agencies in Canada for organic with slightly different standards. Luckily, most of their core values are aligned.
An organic chicken has to be free range, have access to the outdoors at all times (even in winter when they won’t go outside), be raised without the use of antibiotics and be raised on an organic feed diet. This means that the grains the raisers feed them, which is the most common food used in chicken farms, has to be certified organic and without genetically modified ingredients. Most agencies like Pro-Cert have strict inspections to make sure the farmers respect the guidelines.
Be wary: Canadian regulations are more rigid than American ones and one can easily be fooled by labels of foreign countries. Though the USDA Organic label, for example, has the word ‘organic’ in its name, their product would often not pass our Canadian standards for the same grading. This should encourage support of your local Canadian farmers. Their chicken goes through much more scrutiny to make it to your plate.
Many people don’t know this but farmers themselves incur the costs of being certified. Many small farmers meet or exceed the organic standards in Canada but prefer not to pay for a labeling certification because this can get pricey.
Our Papa Earth pasture-raised chicken supplier would easily pass the Canadian organic criteria but they prefer to keep their poultry affordable. We trust their farming practices as they have an open-door policy and are accessible to the public for tours. Importantly, Harley Farms is SPCA trademarked which guarantees the highest animal welfare standards.
Water Chilled VS Air-Chilled Chicken
Water chilled chicken:
During the processing of poultry a lot of tricks can be done to add weight and change the colour of the meat to make it more appealing to consumers. Most conventional poultry have been water chilled, meaning the meat has been cooled in water, with chlorine and sometimes even bleach! The meat will gain ‘water weight’ during the process and the colour will be bleached. Meat treated this way tends to shrink significantly during the cooking process and taste waterier.
Air chilled chicken:
After slaughtering, the whole chicken will be cleaned, de-feathered and cooled in multiple cold chambers, allowing the meat to cool down slowly until it’s ready for butchering. This results in almost no shrinkage, superior taste and longer shelf life in the freezer since there is no added water in the meat to cause freezer burn. Typically, air-chilled chicken will be labeled as air chilled since it’s a selling feature and you’re not paying for water.
Papa Earth’s chicken:
Our whole chickens are pasture raised and come from Harley Farms and their Ontario partner farms. They are raised without antibiotics and 100% air chilled for superior flavour. You’ll find the pasture raised whole chickens on our online meat store as long as the supply allows. If they are available in the winter months it will mean they have been processed in the fall. Thanks to the air chilling and flash freezing, storing them in the freezer for a longer period of time does not affect the quality in any negative way.
Our chicken parts come from multiple Free-Range and Free-Run Ontario farmers and are raised without the use of antibiotics and 100% air chilled. Even though most of our farms allow the chickens outside when the weather allows it, we feel more comfortable to label them free-run since we live in a climate that does not always guarantee outdoor access.
If you have not tried our chicken yet, we recommend that you do and check out our online meat shop. Our customers compliment us often on the superior taste of our chicken and some even say it’s the best chicken they’ve ever had. Some of our senior customers even tell us it reminds them of growing up when all meat was still free range and organic.
If you’ve never tried a meat box from our online meat shop, here’s a coupon code for 10% off your first box: FIRST10. It’s valid for a Medium or Large subscription meat box.