Pastured vs. Free-Range Chicken: Move Past Marketing And Understand What Your Chicken Label Means

Acabonac Farms |

When it comes to buying chicken, manufacturers like to add all kinds of flashy words to their labels to make you more inclined to purchase their particular brand of chicken over their competitors. Words like pastured, free range, organic, antibiotic free and more; all have varying degrees of usefulness when it comes to examining the actual quality of the chicken you will be purchasing. To that end, we wanted to create a quick and easy resource to better understand some of the most common words used on chicken labels - to ultimately help you make the best purchasing decision for you and your family.

Common Chicken Marketing Terms

Free-Range Chicken:

According to the USDA guidelines, free-range chickens must have access to the outdoors. However, the quality, duration, and size of this outdoor access are not regulated. In reality, many free-range chickens are still raised in overcrowded barns with minimal outdoor exposure, barely allowing them to exhibit their natural behaviors.

industrial free range chicken

Industrial “free-range” chicken coop


Organic chicken is raised without the use of antibiotics, synthetic pesticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While the organic label guarantees certain standards, it doesn't necessarily mean the chickens have ample space or access to the outdoors. In fact, it is very much possible to factory farm organic chickens.


The term "natural" implies that the chicken contains no artificial ingredients or added colors. However, it doesn't guarantee any specific farming practices or animal welfare standards. This is an easy one to add to just about any label since it means next to nothing beyond what you are buying is in fact chicken.


"Cage-free" suggests that chickens are not kept in cages, but they may still be confined to overcrowded barns with limited space to move around or no access to the outside. Notably, it's likely that no chicken you've purchased to eat has ever been raised in a cage. That’s just not how you raise chickens for meat. Egg laying chickens on the other hand are often raised in cages. Their large row enclosures may be overcrowded on a factory farm, and they may not have access to the outdoors; but they are not raised in individual cages. Therefor making this marketing tag completely meaningless.

Antibiotic-Free Chicken:

Chickens labeled as "antibiotic-free" were not given antibiotics during their lifetime. However, this label doesn't address other potential issues, such as living conditions or access to outdoor space. Further, if a chicken were to need antibiotics – the USDA requires a waiting period for all antibiotics to clear the chicken’s system before it can be slaughtered. Thus, all chicken you buy is “technically” antibiotic free.

Humane or Humanely Raised:

While this label is intended to indicate that the chickens were raised with a focus on animal welfare, there are no standardized definitions for what constitutes "humane" treatment. This lack of regulation makes the label open to interpretation and can lead to varying practices across producers. It’s a good one to have, but unfortunately nonspecific without follow-up on your part to investigate the farm.

No Hormones Added:

This label is often seen on chicken products, but it's important to note that the use of hormones in poultry production is prohibited by law, making this label redundant.

Pastured Chicken:

Pastured chicken refers to birds that are raised on open pasture, where they are allowed to roam freely, forage for natural food sources, and express their natural behaviors. These chickens are not confined to small spaces and have ample access to sunlight, fresh air, and nutritious vegetation. The freedom to move and access to varied diets result in healthier and happier birds.

Nutritional Benefits of Pastured Chicken

The differences between pastured and other chickens extend beyond living conditions. Pastured chicken is nutritionally superior due to their natural diet and lifestyle. Research has shown that pastured chickens have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of unhealthy saturated fats compared to conventionally raised chickens. These essential fatty acids play a crucial role in maintaining heart health, reducing inflammation, and supporting brain function. When purchasing chicken, buying pastured chicken from a farm you trust is the best way to insure the quality of your food.

Tracing the Source: The Importance of Transparency

When buying your chicken, it’s important to know where it comes from. This is the only way you can verify their claims. With larger companies it can be hard to find out what they mean when they say “free-range”. Here at Acabonac we’re proud to be Long Island locals, and even offer tours of our ranch where you can come out and meet the birds and see where your food comes from!

The distinctions between pastured and free-range chicken are significant, and many other buzzwords are meaningless. Our locally raised pastured chicken offers a more humane and natural living environment, leading to healthier birds, superior nutritional benefits and tastier meat. By supporting pastured chicken farming, we choose to be part of a movement that embraces ethical and sustainable practices while enjoying high-quality and flavorful chicken. When it comes to making an informed choice, pastured chicken wins every time.

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