Shopping for Chicken: Looking for Low Price, High Quality, or Humane Care?

ChickenOnce upon a time, chicken choices were something like this: a fryer or a roaster, whole or cut up, kosher or not. Today, the market also offers an assortment of specialty chickens. Prices can range from  $1.99 to $10.95  a pound, Chicago Tribune  reporter Monica Eng recently discovered.   For a specialty bird, a consumer may pay up to 10 times the cost of a regular chicken, Eng says.


Eng researched 5 types of specialty chickens, found out how their feed and treatment differ,  and even had a panel of tasters rate them as to taste and texture.  Here’s what she discovered...


Amish ($1.99 lb.):  The “Amish” label can mean a lot or almost nothing except that the bird was raised on an Amish facility. Some (such as Miller’s Poultry) are antibiotic-free and exposed to sunlight.  Flavor ratings vary among different brands.  Eng’s panel of tasters gave the Amish bird they tried rating in the middle of the 5.


Air chilled ($2.29 lb.):  After slaughter, these birds are chilled in a cooler rather than being dropped in a pool of cold water.  Consumer Reports found  fewer incidents of bacteria on birds handled this way.  There’s also less water weight, but the consumer doesn’t pay for that anyway.


Organic ($2.29 lb.): To earn the “organic” label, a bird  1) must be fed only certified organic feed or be pastured in certified organic fields; 2) must not be given antibiotics, hormones, or animal by-products; and 3) must have access to the outdoors. ( However, no  minimum time limit has been set, leading one cynical grocery store employee to tell the ShelfLifeAdvice editor, “Maybe it’s 15 minutes a day.”)  Organic chickens have been found to carry lower levels of salmonella and campylobacter, but they cost, Eng says, three times as much as the ordinary  nonorganic chicken.  Eng’s taste panelists rated the organic bird the tastiest of the 5 specialty birds they sampled.


Heritage chickens ($6.95-10.95) lb.): The name is appropriate. To be a Heritage chicken, the bird must have good  ancestry and breeding.  It must come from one of the breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association prior to the mid-20th century.  It must mate naturally and  be allowed to live a “long” (16-28 week) outdoor life, as opposed to chickens cooped up indoors and killed at 7 weeks.  It tasted good to the panelists; it was moist but firmer than the other birds.  


Pastured chicken ($3.25lb.):  Don’t confuse a pastured chicken with a free-range chicken.  These two types have quite different lifestyles. Eng explains: “Free-range chickens are raised indoors but ‘given access’ to the outdoors.” On the other hand, “pastured poultry should be raised  primarily outdoors but provided with access to shelter…”  Pastured birds generally have less fat and more muscle than a factory-farmed bird. Therefore, they need to be cooked more slowly and at a lower temperature. Furthermore, according to the tasters,  the texture was too firm.


Suppose you just want a “natural” bird, one that contains no artificial ingredients or added color and one that has been only minimally processed?  Eng says, “Most chickens would pass these requirements.”


ShelfLifeAdvice Editor’s Note: Don’t be freaked out by the references to pathogens in these raw birds.  You’re not going to eat raw chicken. If you handle the bird properly and cook it at least to the minimum proper temperatures, the bird should be safe to eat.  (For more on the subject of contaminated chicken, click here:


Here are the recommended minimum cooking  temperatures for all poultry from the chart on this site: “Safe Temperatures For Cooking Food.” 


Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck,  goose, etc.


For  safety, at least 165ºF (71ºC)


For good quality (juice and flesh no longer pink)


White meat (breasts, boned or not) 170ºF (77ºC)

Dark meat (leg, thigh) 180ºF (82ºC)      

Whole birds, check: inner  thigh, wing, thickest part of breast 180ºF (82ºC)

Stuffing (Be sure to check this!) 165ºF (74ºC) 


For more information on  the safe handling of chicken, click here:


For more information on where to purchase specialty chickens, see the source  listed below. 




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