The Chicken Label Decoded

chicken label decoded

Everything we need to know about buying chicken can be found on the label. Here’s a handy guide to what those words mean and why they matter.

USDA Required Labels: What *Must* Be on Your Chicken?

Required Labels: What *Must* Be on Your Chicken? FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service)—a department of the USDA (U.S Department of Agriculture)—is the public health regulatory agency responsible for ensuring that the meat, poultry, and eggs sold in the USA are safe, promote good health, and are correctly labeled and packaged. USDA language is not about the quality in terms of taste: It is about quality in terms of uniformity. To be approved by the FSIS, chicken products must provide several specific labeling requirements, including these standard terms:

Product Name

Must be an accurate description of what is actually in the package so we can trust what the label says, with specific definitions for different cuts—how the chicken is portioned—for example, a common term such as “Chicken Legs.”

Official Inspection Legend / Establishment Number

This designates product fit for consumption as per state or federal inspections. Because each poultry facility has its own establishment number, packaged chicken can then be traced back to its processing location, particularly useful in the case of product recalls stemming from an issue at a specific facility.

Address

Every package must company name and contact information, including the address for customer access.

Quantity/Weight

While it’s not always possible to provide the precise weight for a product, the package should include the net weight or the number of pieces contained within. This amount must fall within an approved range (which accounts for factors such as freezing, moisture content, and evaporation, etc).

Ingredients

Ingredient statements are not assembled randomly but listed in order of predominance, from greatest to least amount used, such as a label that reads “INGREDIENTS: Chicken breast, salt, spices.” Anything that makes up under 2% of the final product is listed separately at the end of the list, marked as “Contains less than 2% of __.”

Vague descriptions of ingredients—such as flavorings or spices—are permitted if companies have a specific recipe that they need to protect for proprietary reasons.

There will also be an allergen statement if the finished product or the processing might contain anything from the major allergen list, which includes soy, wheat, shellfish, tree nuts, eggs, fish, peanuts, and milk.  

To comply with USDA approved chicken labels, companies must also add other information, depending on the product.

Handling Statement

If products need to be handled in a specific manner, instructions must be clearly stated on the packaging including directives such as “Keep Frozen” or similar instructions that help preserve the quality of the food.

Safe Handling Instructions

Required if the product is not ready-to-eat, this section should contain cooking steps in order to ensure the chicken will be safely prepared.

Nutritional Information

Required on all poultry products that have more than one ingredient. However, this information does not need to appear on the main label. It can be placed as a separate label on front panel or on the back of the package. Each aspect of nutritional data These ingredients needs to reference a serving, which is specified on the label. The nutrition information label is required to include the

  • Servings per Container
  • Serving Size
  • Total Calories
  • Total Calories from Fat
  • Total Fat
  • Saturated Fat
  • Trans Fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sodium
  • Total Carbohydrate
  • Dietary Fiber
  • Total Sugars
  • Added Sugars
  • Protein
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Potassium

Naming on Chicken Labels: What Are You Getting?

Many labels are dedicated to letting the consumer know exactly what they’re buying... but they’re simply not always that clear. Certain names, such as Thighs or Legs are fairly obvious, but others, such as Broiler or Tenderloin, are more difficult to understand. Let’s take a look at what to expect from some of the more popular names out there.

Types of Chicken: Bird-by-bird

Broiler

Chickens that are raised specifically for meat and butchered at a young age. They are the most common types of supermarket chicken.

Cornish Hen

Not a different species, but a very small broiler, harvested at an even younger age. (Not confused with a Game bird.)

Cornish Cross

These chickens are bred specifically for the meat market and are a cross between the commercial Cornish Hen and a White Rock, making it a larger breed that develops rapidly, making it more cost effective to raise them for meat. The Cornish Cross makes up 99% of the chicken market.

White Rock

A White Rock chicken is raised for meat, but it doesn’t grow quite as big or as fast as the Cornish Cross. However, the breed is stronger and more likely to survive for longer.

Heirloom

Typically, more costly than standard chickens, heirloom chicken is a specialty bird, a link to our agricultural past when our food came from farms and fields, not factories. The birds themselves are from heritage breeds—that is a breed identified before the 20th century, genetically maintained through natural mating— that are slow-growth, allowing them more time to achieve a proper feeding size and yielding a healthier, tastier bird because of it.

Roaster

Still under 12 weeks of age, roasters weigh in at least 5.5 lbs or more, plenty of meat for roasting, while keeping the poultry tender.

Parts of the Chicken: Piece-by-piece

Whole Chicken

Just as it sounds, this label means that you’re getting an entire chicken that is mostly intact. This includes both white and dark meat, while the giblets may or may not be included in the body cavity.

White Meat

White Meat includes the breast, wing, and tenders from the chicken.

Breast

For white meat lovers, the breast is the best part of the chicken. The largest cut off the bird, chicken breasts are bought in a variety of ways including skinless or skin-on, boneless or bone-in, and with or without rib meat.

Tender or Tenderloin

Tenders are small strips of white meat attached under each breast, so each chicken has two.

Dark Meat

This term means the back half of the chicken is used, including the legs and/or thighs.

Drumstick

Many people commonly confuse the Drumstick with the Leg, but the Drumstick is actually the Leg segment from the knee down—separating out a smaller piece of the leg and made up of all dark meat.

Leg

Containing all dark meat, the entire leg contains the thigh—from the top of the leg (above the knee joint), connected to the body of the chicken—and the drumstick—or the leg segment from the knee joint down. When bought together, this is called the leg quarter, which can also be sold as separate cuts.

Thigh

A chicken Thigh is located above the knee joint and connected to the body of the chicken, providing it a plump piece of dark meat on the bone.

Wings

Chicken wings donThey may not have a lot of meat, but chicken wings pack a lot of flavor. That’s why wings are such a popular snack food and can also be used to enrich the liquid when making stock. They’re sold in several ways: drummettes—the portion of the wing attached to the chicken breast—the flat middle part, the tip, or the entire wing.’t have much meat on them... but they’re a wildly popular snack food or ingredient for making stock! You can get the drummettes, the wingette, the wing tip, or the entire / whole wing.

Giblets

This can include the gizzard, heart, neck, and liver, typically packaged in a small bag, tucked into the body cavity of a whole chicken.

Wellness Claims: How Are the Chickens Raised?

The labels also indicate how the chickens were raised, helping us factory farming practices into our selection. However not all the terms are a straightforward reflection of the claims made.

All Vegetable

Although conventional chicken feed contains some meat and poultry by-products as a method of including protein and vitamins in their diet, if your chicken was raised on an all vegetable diet—usually made from soybeans and corn—it might be labeled like this.

Antibiotic Free

Federal regulations require that if any antibiotics are used to keep flocks free of disease, they must have cleared the chicken’s system before it can leave the farm. So technically, any chicken you buy is “antibiotic free” But that doesn’t mean the bird has never received antibiotics.

No Antibiotics Ever

This label is your guarantee that no antibiotics were used at any point in the raising of the chickens, and that any bird requiring antibiotics was removed from the flock.

No Added Hormones or Steroids

Although the FDA does not permit the addition of steroids or hormones to chickens as part of processing, this standard statement is still included on every label.

Cage Free

Technically, all chicken in the United States is cage free chicken, as the vast majority of birds raised specifically for meat are housed in barns or large buildings.

Farm Raised

Again, a standard claim as all US chicken is farm raised. However, the term “farm” stretches from smaller local endeavors (like the people who sell chickens at your green market) to the large industrial-sized complexes (like the companies that sell to major supermarkets).

Free Range

Free Range just means that the chickens are allowed access to the outdoors for part of the day, whether or not they actually take advantage of it. Since there’s no specific definition for the term, the USDA approves each label based on a case-by-case basis. It’s important to note that Free Range does not mean Organic, but all Organic chickens must be Free Range.

Organic

In order to value, any claim to organic” status must be accompanied by a USDA Certified Organic seal. Only this label verifies that the chicken was never given antibiotics (though, it may have been vaccinated), was fed only organic soy and corn, and raised Free Range.

Pasture-Raised

Pasture-Raised birds live the majority of their lives on fresh pasture where they are allowed to freely forage adding supplemental diet of what is field-found—like grass and insects—to the balanced feed they are given.

Slow-Growth

This refers to chickens that grow at a slower rate than conventional chicken breeds, giving the skeletal system time to develop and allows their weight to be evenly distributed. The birds can take up to an additional three weeks more to reach market weight.

Hatched, Raised, and Processed in the USA

For those of us wanting to support American companies, this label may hold particular importance. However, over 99% of chicken sold in this country is from birds hatched, raised, and processed in the USA, with only a small percentage from Canada or Chile. Even if this claim isn’t on the package, the meat has likely been produced within the USA.

Processing Labels: What to Expect

Labels should also explain how the bird we are buying is prepared for packaging. Below are some of the most commonly used labels.

Fresh

If the chicken has never below freezing temperature (26°F), it can be labeled as “Fresh.” When this word is missing from the label, it’s possible that the chicken—either whole or in cuts—has been frozen previously, even when thawed at the time of purchase.

Natural

Chicken termed “Natural” is required by the USDA to be minimally processed and without the inclusion of any chemical preservatives, colorants, or artificial ingredients. It’s simply the mark of a better bird.

Enhanced

Chicken labeled as “Enhanced” contains ingredients added to create more flavor. As such, the label must state the ingredient list with exactly what is in the enhancement, which typically includes water, salt, sugar, and possibly seasonings or chicken broth.

Retained Water

There are strict regulations in place against moisture retention (which can increase the purchasing weight). It’s not permitted except when used to ensure safety in the final product. For example, if the chicken is chilled in water and retains water, it must be included on the label. The label may state either, “Less than __% retained water” or “May contain up to __% retained water.”

Water Chilled

The majority of chicken processing facilities use large vats of icy water—some containing chlorine—to cool the freshly-butchered chickens. This process results in absorption of water into the meat, and that water retention usually means that we end up paying for water (an average of 8%, but up to 12%) as part of the total weight of the bird. Increased water in the meat also dilutes the flavor of the chicken and may increase the chances of bacterial cross-contamination.

Air Chilled

Instead of using water, some processors use a large refrigerated space to Air Chill their chicken. While this method takes longer, Air-Chilling helps maintain the original color as well as the natural flavor and moisture of the chicken. Less water absorption as part of processing results in a crispier skin and less meat shrinkage when the bird is cooked.

Beyond Flavor: Other Chicken Labels You Need to Know About

Food lovers today are not only concerned with better flavor. We are also interested in the sourcing of our food: the farming practices making a daily contribution to our diet, and when it comes to animals, if those practices indicate that what we’re buying has been humanely raised. When it comes to chicken, be on the lookout for these labels:

Non-GMO Project

This label guarantees that absolutely no GMO products are used in the raising or processing of the poultry. The Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program is the only third-party verification for non-GMO foods in North America, an area of focus that many consumers feel quite strongly about, and important factor in gaining our purchasing trust.

Gap 4-Certified

Gap 4-Certified is issued by Global Animal Partnership, well known as the authority in animal welfare labeling. They use a tiered, numerical system of Steps 1-5 to indicate how well the chickens were raised, and essentially, the higher the number, the better the farm. Step 4—which is the level at which Cooks Venture is labeled—requires the chickens to be raised on-pasture 100% of the time, starting from four weeks of age. It also requires the pasture(s) to have shade and be well maintained, the raising of a breed that is naturally meant to live outdoors, and for the addition of enrichments within the pasture.

American Humane Certified or Certified Humane

American Humane Certified, Certified Humane, or Shop with Your Heart, all indicate humane treatment of animals and help prevent cruelty to animals. Although these specialty certifications fall outside USDA parameters, there is one USDA-approved third-party animal welfare food certification label: Animal Welfare Certified, indicating that the farm where the chickens were raised has specific high-welfare standards.

ASPCA Shop With Your Heart

TBD TBD ASPCA (The Animal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) TBD

Regenerative

This means the farm raising the chickens adopts farming practices that mimic natural systems to repair, replenish and improve our soil and ecosystems, boosting biodiversity and helping to mitigate climate change.

USDA Process Verified

This means the company is approved by the USDA in the areas of age, source, processing and raising claims, as well as ceding practices.

Cooks Venture’s Recommendation: What Should You Buy?

There's a reason we raise slow-growing chickens without antibiotics in pastures, a reason we use only Non-GMO feed grown by farmers in regenerative systems, a reason we process our birds through Air-Chilling. And it’s all the same reason: Cook Venture is on a mission to provide you with the best chicken on the market while raising the best chicken for the planet.
 

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