Chicken

Free-range chickens stand in their coop at Grassington Farm, near Lewes in southern England. (Luke MacGregor / Reuters)


Just because a chicken is labeled "organic" does not mean that the bird on your plate lived a bucolic farm life before you cooked it.

To officially be called "organic," the animal must be fed organic food (grown with no pesticides), receive no antibiotics and be given access to the outdoors.

While a whole, generic store-brand chicken typically costs about $1.50 per pound, the price for organic chicken is $2.69 a pound at Trader Joe's, the U.S. grocery chain, and $4.99 per pound from online grocer Fresh Direct. Whole Foods sells boneless, skinless organic chicken breasts for $8.99 per pound. And it's not unusual to pay more than $10 per pound for similar organic chicken breasts at upscale butcher shops.

So what's behind the cost of organic chicken? Are you getting what you think you are paying a premium for?

DECIPHERING LABELS

Beyond the label "organic," chicken packages that purport to be more natural than ordinary chicken could carry any of the following terms: natural, antibiotic-free, farm-raised, fresh, cage-free, hormone-free and free-range. The U.S. Department of Agriculture imposed some rules on the use of these terms.

However, the range of possibilities is broad, and the various distinctions can be "bastardized," says Ariane Daguin, founder of D'Artagnan, a high-end meat company.

It's one thing to have "free-range" chickens living in a crowded pen with a small, open gate, and quite another to have a spacious environment with considerable outdoor access for the birds, she says.

That's because some of the label terms are of little value to consumers.

* "Natural" means there are no artificial ingredients or preservatives. That claim can be made for most chicken sold at grocery stores.

* "Hormone-free" has even less meaning since hormones are not legally allowed in poultry. Same goes for "farm-raised," since just about every chicken sold is raised on a farm.

* "Antibiotic-free" has significance to those who are concerned about consuming an animal treated with antibiotics. An organic chicken cannot be treated with antibiotics.

* "Fresh" means the chicken has never been cooled below 26 degrees Fahrenheit (-3 degrees Celsius).

* "Free-range" is taken by many to mean that the chickens roam free in a pasture, but legally it just means they have access to the outside.


IS IT BETTER?

While some consumers say organic chicken is healthier and tastes better, that's not necessarily true.

The taste issue, in particular, can be hard to discern. It's easy to distinguish organic milk from non-organic milk. Grass-fed beef stands out in particular among connoisseurs. Chicken, however, is harder to be snooty about.

"You have to have one outrageous palate to distinguish between an organic bird and another bird," says Dallas-based chef Otto Borsich.

Judging by looks might be the hardest part. Non-organic chicken will actually often look plumper because those chickens are fed a diet maximized for growth, Borsich says. And any chicken, organic or not, that is processed with water may end up retaining some, which will add to the price and diminish the taste. The key to avoiding that is to look for chicken marked as "air-chilled," Daguin says.