Growing up in California, it’s easy to feel close to the source of your food. Farmers’ Markets proliferate across the city, with dirt still clinging to produce, and backyard chickens are a common sight in the hipper neighborhoods. But in reality, I’m actually still pretty disconnected from the food I eat. I’ve been taking opportunities to visit farms whenever I can, and most recently I’ve partnered with the National Chicken Council to visit a chicken farm to learn more about how chicken is raised, from the farm to your plate.

Like most consumers, I find marketing around food pretty confusing. There’s organic, natural, no added hormones, no antibiotics ever, cage free, farm raised, veggie fed – and even more ways you can find chicken described when you head to the butcher’s counter. So what actually matters? How can you buy the best chicken, meaning, best for you and best for the environment? Here are some of my takeaways from the tour.

One of the first things I learned was that the way egg-laying chickens are raised and the way meat chickens are raised is entirely different. Different breeds, different purposes – much like how grapes for eating are sweet, thin skinned, and seedless but grapes for wine are highly acidic, thick skinned, and with seeds. We visited a chicken farm for meat, so I’ll be speaking to my experience there, not on how egg-laying chickens are farmed. 

The farm we visited was in the heart of Delmarva (Delaware – Maryland – Virginia), right on the Chesapeake Bay. Like many farming systems, chicken farming here is vertically integrated and this farm raises chickens for a company called Allen Harim. Chicks, feed, supplies are provided by the company that will then purchase the chickens from the farm. Some farmers even grow and harvest the produce for the feed – selling it to the company and then buying it back after is has been processed. The farmers and experts we met with came from generations of chicken farmers, and the top concern around the lunch table was consumer confusion over labels. 

One of the biggest points of confusion was over hormones. The phrase “no hormones added” makes it seem as though chicken packaged without this phrase must have added hormones, but chickens, like humans, have naturally occurring hormones in their system, and since the 1950s, it has been illegal to add hormones to poultry. “No antibiotics ever” simply means the chicken was never given antibiotics. Chicken that has gotten sick and needs to be treated with antibiotics is sold to conventional, rather than organic,, lines of chicken. Cage-free is only relevant to egg-laying farms, as the industry standard for meat chickens is for them to be raised outside of cages. That means that the chicken meat you buy at the store is always raised cage-free. Natural is a generally meaningless term, with no oversight applied to it.

When we went inside of the chicken house, we suited up in what look like hazmat suits. The farmer explained that the suits weren’t for our protection, but to protect the chickens’ health. Anyone who visits a chicken farm must suit up. In order to keep the chickens healthy and antibiotic free, she needed to protect their immune systems.

As I entered the chicken house, I was struck by a few things. First, it was pleasantly warm. A computer system oversees the environment closely, making sure there’s plenty of fresh air but that the temperature remains cozy. The next thing I noticed was the smell – surprisingly mild. Chicken manure is a huge resource for farmers, and used as an organic fertilizer on grain and produce farms – the manure is regularly captured and stored or composted. I finally noticed how quiet it was. Chickens were gently clucking, huddled in little groups (this is how they feel the most comfortable, in close knit groups), but with plenty of space around them. Apparently if the chickens are distressed, they’ll loudly call out and flutter around, agitated. 

I also noticed little hiding spots for the chickens laid out across the house. These are “environment enrichments” that help the farm meet its animal welfare certification. Jenny’s farm is certified by the Global Animal Partnership, and the birds looked happy and healthy.  Higher end stores, like Whole Foods, require the farms that they’re sourcing from to be GAP- certified. Basically, this means that the farm is centered on animal welfare and experience, with certifications ranging from 1 to 5, 5 being chickens spending their entire lives on the farm. Looking for the certification is a convenient shorthand I can use when purchasing chicken.

However, all farms must have an animal welfare program that they are audited and certified against, usually by third-parties, the chicken company and the grocery stores and restaurants that eventually by the chicken.

It’s frustrating that the marketing isn’t clearer, but it was so helpful seeing the chickens being humanely raised and sitting down with the farmer to learn about what language actually matters when it comes to purchasing chicken.