What the heck is up with vegetarian fed chicken?

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed more and more poultry and eggs being marketed as “vegetarian fed.”

While I’ve always wondered what this label means, now that I work on a farm, I’ve really started to question it.

I work on a farm that raises chickens on pasture. Unlike chickens raised in confinement, pasture-raised chickens get to express their natural, chicken-y behaviors. Although I can’t pretend to know exactly what’s going on in their chicken brains, spending their days scratching and foraging seems to give them a certain amount of poultry joy.

Chickens that are allowed to be chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians. In addition to eating greens and seeds, pasture-raised chickens eat worms, insects, frogs, snakes, and even mice (they’re pretty impressive hunters!).

So the label “vegetarian fed” is a pretty good indicator that a chicken (or egg) is an industrial product.

Poultry and egg labels are notoriously misleading. “Free-range,” “Cage-free,” and “Organic” labels do not mean that the chickens were raised outside of confinement. Based on what I’ve seen at the farm, the label “Vegetarian fed” is a warning sign that the poultry did not get to spend any time on pasture being happy birds.

Vegetarian feed is gaining popularity in industrial chicken farming because it reduces the risk of latent animal diseases in poultry feed – a particular concern to industrial chicken farmers because the conditions in which animals are raised makes them more susceptible to disease.

Perhaps more motivating to industrial operations is that people are willing to spend top dollar on “vegetarian fed” poultry and eggs from “vegetarian fed” hens, presumably because “vegetarian” just sounds healthy to most people. But in actuality, pasture-raised chickens and their eggs are much more nutrient-dense than their industrial counterparts.

The best way to find nutritious and compassionately raised poultry is to talk to local farmers. Or you can visit Eatwild’s State-by-State Directory of Farms to find pasture-raised chickens or eggs near you.

Image courtesy of Compassion in World Farming via a Creative Commons license.

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19 thoughts on “What the heck is up with vegetarian fed chicken?”

  1. I feel like another component of this might be letting consumers know that the chickens weren't given any animal by-products in their feed. Some industrial chicken feed contains “recycled cattle proteins” and “ruminant meat and bone meal” – a.k.a. beef. So I suppose this is just distuinguishing one industrial chicken product from anyother inductrial chicken product that may be just slightly better.

  2. I don't think "vegetarian fed" necessarily precludes they are also cage raised. Because I have seen eggs labelled both cage free AND vegetarian fed. I think the claim only applies to the actual food mix provided by the grower, which if not "vegetarian" may actually contain blood meal, fish meal, and other protein slurry waste from animal processing. ;)

    Remember, the claim is not an official FDA certifiable claim. The feed mix may very well be "vegetarian", but I don't think anyone is going to great lengths to ensure chickens can't eat any worms or bugs.

    1. Actually, the label "cage-free" is incredibly misleading. When chicken is labeled as such, it just means that they weren't raised in standard-sized cages. They are typically raised in large, crowded sheds in an extremely inhumane manner.

      The label "free-range" (a subset of "cage-free") is also misleading. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requires that chickens raised for their meat have access to the outdoors in order to receive the free-range certification.

      That access is generally extremely limited – to the point where few to no birds actually venture out of confinement. The outdoor space does not need to be big enough to accommodate all of the birds, nor is it required to contain food or water. The outdoor space is usually dirt or gravel – not pasture. The doors to this outdoor space aren't opened until the chickens have reached maturity, and then can be cracked just a few minutes each day to qualify the birds as "free-range."

      Free-range chicken eggs have no legal definition in the United States. Hence, free-range egg producers have no common standard. Some egg farmers sell their eggs as free-range because their cages are two or three inches above average size, or because there is a window in the shed.

  3. Thank you for the post. It was very informative. I wish I didn't read it though because now I'm really upset. I feel bad for the chickens and I feel bad for all that money I've spent think my $5.00 eggs are healthier than the $1.00 eggs. My goodness to find out cage free and free range are a bunch of BULLSHIT too. Its a sad day in America People. Too many Loopholes that need to be closed.

    1. Don't feel discouraged! If you're going to buy industrial eggs, it's better to buy free-range or cage-free eggs, despite the deceptiveness of these labels. At least the chickens probably have a bit more room. The same can be said for eggs from vegetarian-fed hens. If you're going to buy industrial eggs, it's better that the hens were fed vegetarian feed than feed containing animal byproducts.

      That said, eggs from pasture-raised hens are usually pretty easy to find and thankfully not much more expensive than the eggs you were purchasing at the grocery store. You can find pasture-raised eggs at most farmers markets for $4-5. You might also consider joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) group that includes pasture-raised eggs in their food shares. To find a farmers market or CSA near you, check out Local Harvest (http://www.localharvest.org/).

      Don't have a local farmers market? Craigslist (http://www.craigslist.org/about/sites) is a surprisingly good place to find eggs from happy chickens. People with backyard chickens often have more eggs than they can eat, so they end up selling extra eggs on sites such as Craigslist. Just search for "eggs" on your local Craigslist and see what pops up!

  4. Very interesting. I've been buying organic eggs so that I don't get them from chickens that have been given antibiotics. I like to read this info because it oftentimes gives a different side to the organic/nonorganic issue. Thanks very much!

  5. Thanks for the info. We are knew at raising chickens and I thought they shouldn’t have animal protein in their feed. From what you say, I probably have nothing to worry about as long as the feed company is reputable. Chickens actually eat mice? That is wild, literally!

  6. Thank you for this information! I am trying to become a more cautious buyer, and genuinely thought that “vegetarian feed” meant thumbs up. Unfortunately, I (like many others) have fallen victim to conventional capitalists…thanks again! – Lauren

  7. Vegetarian Fed means simply that although chickens feed themselves with insects and other animals the food that humans feed them is free of animal byproducts. And actually most if not all vegetarian poultry feed brands acknowledge that. Vegetarian fed means what it says. The food mix presented to them by humans contains no animal by products. But chickens decide themselves what they pick up while ranging.

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