WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Years ago, chicken sold in the supermarkets was simply labeled “chicken.” Now there's a confusing array of information on labels such as natural, free range and no antibiotics.
Chicken is the nation's top ”center of the plate” food. Americans consume an average of 81 pounds of chicken a year, about 10 pounds more than 20 years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. That's far more than the per capita 57 pounds of beef, 45 pounds of pork and 16 pounds of turkey consumed.
Several of the terms you might find on labels don't mean what you might think. Take “”free-range.” Does that make you think of an idyllic pasture where chickens are free to roam and peck where they may?
That could be the case. But it could mean only that the birds are allowed access to the outside, which is all the USDA requires. Does that mean they're outdoors for 10 minutes a day?
The same goes for “farm-raised.” Every chicken is raised on a chicken farm, so the term does not mean it is some sort of special chicken.
“Natural” has a broad definition. To qualify for the designation, chicken must contain no artificial ingredients or added color and be minimally processed, the USDA says.
Perhaps one of the most difficult points for consumers to grasp is the difference between “antibiotic-free” and “raised without antibiotics.”
The words “No antibiotics added” may be used on labels for poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided to the USDA to show that the poultry was raised without antibiotics.
Every chicken sold must be free of antibiotics, so antibiotic-free does not mean the product is anything out of the norm. It simply means that no detectable residues are present.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service randomly samples poultry and tests for residues.
Chickens raised without any antibiotics carry a premium price. Whole Foods guarantees that all meat and poultry it sells has never been treated with antibiotics. Publix GreenWise brand meat and poultry also has been raised without any antibiotics.
To find poultry raised without any antibiotics, look for the USDA organic seal, the USDA Process Verified shield or a private certifier such as Global Animal Partnership.
There is a growing concern about animals used for food being treated with antibiotics. Physicians and scientists say the practice could lead to organisms becoming immune to the antibiotics. There's also the fear that human health is at risk due to the potential presence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs in meat and poultry.
Approximately 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in meat and poultry production. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said in a recent report that the threat to public health from the overuse of antibiotics in food and animals is real and growing.
The American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, Infectious Disease Society of America and the World Health Organization are among organizations which have called for a reduction of antibiotics in animal food production, Consumers Union said.
Consumers Union said that the antibiotic-resistant superbugs are being found on meat and poultry sold in grocery stores.
A Consumer Reports investigation in 2010 found that two-thirds of the chicken samples it tested were contaminated with salmonella or campylobacter or both and that more than 60 percent of those organisms were antibiotic-resistant.