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Confused by poultry labels? You are not alone

PALMYRA, VA — The myriad choices of chicken and egg products can mystify consumers as they compare labels and prices.

Some production labels—like free-range, pasture-raised, organic and cage-free—fetch a premium price. But what are the differences, and how are those claims verified?

Last year Barbara and Dewey Haines of Hidden Springs Family Farm in Fluvanna County, Virginia raised their first 90 broilers and 94 egg-laying birds in an on-pasture system.

“Barbara went on the neighborhood app advertising extra eggs, and two or three people asked if they’re free-range,” Dewey recalled. “We had to explain to them what ‘free-range’ really means. Chickens ‘getting to go anywhere, anytime’ is not the U.S. Department of Agriculture definition.”

Of all the labels out there, some claims are more closely verified than others, said assistant professor Leonie Jacobs of the Animal Behavior and Welfare Group at the Virginia Tech School of Animal and Poultry Sciences.

“It can be hard for consumers to make these choices, and they’re often in a hurry,” she said. “It’s important to inform them clearly with short messages, but also honestly.”

Knowledge of production labels can empower consumers to make informed choices for their budgets.

Conventionally raised: Broilers are raised cage-free in the U.S., mostly in large, environmentally controlled houses, safe from diseases and predation. Most laying hens in the U.S. are housed in these.

Cage-free: Cage-free layers are housed in indoor-only, controlled environments that provide chickens the freedom to roam within the house. Outdoor access is not required.

Free-range: Growers must demonstrate to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service that the laying hens have been allowed outside access for 51% of their laying cycle. Access to a porch-style area can be considered free-range.

Pasture-raised: Poultry are raised in pastured or woodlot settings where they can roam freely, foraging in vegetation. These designations are granted by verifying bodies such as American Humane Certified or Certified Animal Welfare.

Natural: Natural products typically contain no artificial ingredients or added color. All eggs meet these criteria.

Certified organic free-range poultry and cage-free eggs are strictly regulated through the USDA’s National Organic Program. 100% Organic must be produced using sustainable production practices without prohibited methods like genetic engineering. Organic products must contain no less than 95% of certified organic ingredients. “Made With Organic” products are made with at least 70% certified organic ingredients.

No antibiotics: Poultry with this label have not been treated with antibiotics. If treated, a withdrawal period is always required before slaughter.

No hormones: Hormones aren’t used in poultry, ever.

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