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.