Chicken and vegetables in a skillet

The Words on Birds

Your guide to interpreting chicken labels.

Today’s consumers want to know more about the food they consume. Where does it come from? How was it grown and processed? How “clean” is it—have any ingredients been added to it before or after harvest? Foodservice operators are well advised to determine what food attributes are important to their customers and choose products accordingly.

Choosing chicken and poultry that meet customer demands can be facilitated by referencing the labels companies use to market these products. Not all labels are created equal, so it’s important to understand what the claims and certifications behind each label really means. 

Understanding commonly used poultry labels will not only guide your buying choices, it can also assist you in marketing your dishes to customers. 

Federally regulated chicken labels

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) establishes policies and standards for the safety and nutritional quality of food sold in Canada. Chickens must be raised and processed in a manner that complies with CFIA regulations in order for sellers to use these terms—or they will face legal consequences. That means you can be confident in the accuracy of these claims on labels.

  • Natural. A “natural” chicken is one that does not contain added vitamins, nutrients, artificial flavours or food additives. In addition, the product cannot have something removed from it (except for water) or have been “significantly” changed.
  • No Hormones or Steroids. The CFIA does not permit the use of hormones or steroids in poultry, and companies must acknowledge this if referencing these substances on labels. A claim such as “like other chickens, this chicken was raised without the use of added hormones” may be used.
  • Organic. Chicken that is sold as organic is raised to specific standards as laid out by the Canadian General Standards Board in addition to the standards set by a reputable organic certifying board. In general, organic chicken must be raised with certified organic feed that contains no animal by-products or antibiotics and any supplements, such as vitamins, must be approved by a certification body.
  • Raised Without the Use of Antibiotics. This phrase can be used on poultry labels only if the animal has not been treated with antibiotics, administered by any method, from birth to harvest. Additionally, in order for the claim to be used, vitamins and minerals given to the animals may only be given at the level of physiological action for dietary supplement, not for antimicrobial effect.

Both “Raised Without the Use of Antibiotics” and “Organic” claims typically translate into premium prices, so operators may have to decide whether the higher cost is worth it to their customers.

Potentially confusing chicken labels

In the quest to rise above a flock of competitors, some poultry sellers may make claims that are more marketing tactic than useful differentiator. It’s not that these claims are false—it’s just that they need to be understood in context. 

  • Antibiotic-free. This claim does not mean the same thing as Raised Without the Use of Antibiotics. Rather, it refers to the federal law mandating that all chickens must undergo a specific withdrawal period between the last day antibiotics are administered and the harvest date. Because all producers must follow this law, all chickens in this country can technically be considered antibiotic-free.
  • Free Range. This claim refers to chickens having access to regularly roam and graze outdoors. There is not a legal definition of free range in Canada, so it can vary from farm to farm.

In contrast, the Raised Without the Use of Antibiotics claim signifies that no antibiotics have ever been used, for any reason, from birth to harvest. If an RWA chicken falls ill and needs to be treated with antibiotics, it is removed from its RWA flock and moved to a non-RWA flock.

  • Free Run. This term typically refers to chickens raised for eggs, not chickens raised for consumption. In Canada, all chickens raised for meat are free run, meaning they are not kept in cages. Some chickens raised for meat are free range, which means they have access to the outdoors.
  • Non-GMO. All chicken is technically free of genetically modified ingredients. If a company markets its chicken as non-GMO, it means that the chicken feed they use has been organically grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, in accordance with CFIA regulations.