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Organic chicken, sold as meat, is poultry that has been fed a chemical-free, high-quality diet. In most parts of the world, chickens that are marketed as organic consume vegetable proteins, grains, and cereals along with a supplement or supplements containing essential vitamins and minerals. Some organic chickens are given fish meal as well. Some chickens labeled as organic are given diets that specifically disallow genetically modified feed.
In some countries, traditional chicken farmers give their flocks antibiotic growth promoters on a regular basis. Organic chicken farmers do not allow their flocks to ingest antibiotics; however, in some cases, chickens raised organically that are attacked by disease can be treated with antibiotics and still be sold as organic by law.
Organic chicken feed is not treated with chemical applications to kill insect pests or plant diseases. This raises the cost of production for these types of feeds and, ultimately, the cost of organic chicken. However, many consumers believe the higher price is worth it because the meat is less likely to contribute to serious illnesses, such as cancer, in those who consume it.
Organic chickens can be caged or pastured. Many proponents of healthy food and compassionate treatment of animals raised for meat disapprove of the crowded conditions on intensive farms. In these settings, caged birds are allowed almost no room for movement and are kept in low-light, stressful conditions. Organic chickens aren’t fed the chemicals and antibiotics that nonorganic chickens are given to produce fat hens ready for slaughter in a shorter time period, but they may be more likely to develop disease as a result of crowded conditions. The quality of their meat will likely suffer too.
Pastured chickens are allowed to run free. They forage for insects, seeds, and small game and are given additional supplemental food. They do not suffer frequent disease; this means they aren’t treated with antibiotics. Not all pastured chickens are organic. Consumers who want only poultry that is both organic and pastured should confirm both.
A designation that is falling out of popular use is "free-range." Technically, in some areas, chickens can be marketed as free-range if they are permitted as little as a few minutes of daily outdoor exposure. Like pastured chickens, those labeled as free-range are not necessarily organic. In the case of both free-range and pastured chickens, however, there is a greater likelihood that antibiotic use will be limited or absent. Most farmers raising birds outside of intensive methods are also more likely to feed their flocks higher-quality food that is organic.