Who knew chicken could be like a fine wine? The taste will vary based on the quality – much like wine, you get what you pay for. More than the taste, the nutritional characteristics also improve dramatically when you choose a quality chicken. Semi-Primal Husband and I attended a Chicken Butchery Class at The Healthy Butcher last week with Head Butcher, Dave Meli. No, we did not kill chickens or de-feather them! The purpose of the class was to take a whole chicken and learn how to truss it, cut it up in various ways which would enable you to try different recipes and preparation approaches. I learned so much more than this and I want to share some of this knowledge with you and encourage you to get in better touch with where your food is coming from.
When I first started eating Paleo, it was a big enough change for me to get used to. The second phase of my Primal journey started when I watched the movie Food Inc and was horrified to see where my meat was coming from. We are so disconnected from our food sources that we take for granted how our food ends up looking so clean, displayed in nice packaging, sometimes with pictures of farmers on the front and often advertised on TV by showing professional looking butchers cutting the meat with care. In case you didn’t know, that’s all a facade that is driven by genius marketing. After watching Food Inc, I immediately decided to take my Primal eating to the next level – grass-fed beef, organic & humanely raised chicken, pastured pork and other meats. I also pledged to start learning more about where my food comes from and shorten my food chain as much as possible.
When I started shopping at The Healthy Butcher, the sticker shock and increased grocery bills were what impacted me at first. When you’re accustomed to buying 2 chicken breasts for $7 and suddenly your spending $20, that’s a huge increase and you wonder why it’s so expensive – especially if you eat as much chicken as I do! During the Chicken Butchery class I learned so much from Head Butcher Dave Meli about the farming behind chickens and why their meats are higher priced. I highly recommend taking the class or doing research to learn more on your own, but here are a few points that I took away (hopefully i’m not ‘butchering’ these…couldn’t resist that one):
- Why are the chickens at the Healthy Butcher so expensive? There are 2 factors that drive the price of a chicken: real estate and quota’s:
- Real Estate: Much like the real estate in Toronto, farming real estate is not cheap. The analogy that Dave shared was to think about a chicken pen like you would think about your condo/house….In order to pay your monthly mortgage, how many chickens would you need to sell and therefore fit into your condo? In a standard commercial chicken coup, you could have 70,000 chickens stacked up in cages – that’s the $7 chicken you’re paying for. With “Free-Run” you might have 50,000 chickens bunched together in a pen. At Fenwood Farms (farm that supplies the Healthy Butcher) you would have 2,000 in the same amount of space – keep reading to find out why it’s important for the chicken to have some more space. When you’re selling 2,000 chickens vs 70,000 you’re going to have a much higher price tag associated with it.
- Quotas: In order to produce chickens for commercial sale, farmers need to buy a quota which is a way to ensure chicken supply is meeting demand in Ontario. This can be very expensive which adds to the fixed cost of the farm. For more information on quota’s in Ontario, check out this link.
- What does “Free-Run” really mean? We see Free-Run chickens at our local grocery stores and imagine visions of happy chickens frolicking and playing hop-scotch on green grass. Not a chance. Free-run is a fancy way of saying that the chickens are not in cages. They are still subjected to close corners with little room to move around – especially as they get bigger and near the end of their life (only 40-42 days). They are also kept indoors – in Canada this has a lot to do with the weather as chickens need warmth and light to eat, therefore couldn’t withstand the majority of the weather in Canada. Chickens only eat when it’s light, so the shortened days would slow the growth of the chickens – in the indoor pens, they keep it light 24 hours a day to ensure the chickens don’t stop eating. Now, depending on the farm the free-run chickens might have more room to move around. As I mentioned in point #1, Fenwood Farms would only have 2,000 chickens in the same amount of space where another farmer might have 50,000 and can still call it Free-Run. To figure out the difference, ask your butcher about the farm or look online to see if you can find information.
- Better muscle composition = more deliciousness. The taste of chicken is directly impacted by the food they eat and their movement. Much like our own bodies, chickens need proper nourishment and movement in order to improve their muscle composition. Without getting to science-y, movement improves the blood flow to the muscle, therefore the more space a chicken has to roam around the better muscle composition they will develop. The food that the chickens eat directly impacts the taste as well – do you really want to eat a chicken that’s been ingesting hormones, anti-biotics, GMO corn and animal by-products? I swear if you try one of the chickens from Fenwood Farms you will taste the difference!
- Feed and animal by-products: Building on that last point, it is important to understand what your animals are eating before you eat them. As we were cutting the chickens, we tossed any excess fatty skin into a bin that would later be picked up and used as ‘animal by-products’ which are often fed back to factory farm animals. The chickens from Fenwood Farms eat a mixture of barley and oats which Dave indicated he had eaten and enjoyed – this also drives up the price tag associated with these chicks, but you’re getting much better quality.
- It won’t kill you…today. If you’re reading this and know anything about nutrition, then you know that our modern-day food is killing people. The effects of factory farm meat on our health and well-being are only now being brought into the limelight. The skin on a factory farm chicken contains loads of saturated fat, whereas with free-run there is about 30% less. For more on the nutritional differences, check out this link.
Understanding that not everyone can afford to pay $20 for 2 chicken breasts, here are a couple tips to help: 1. Buy the whole chicken – it’s often just as much as 2 breasts and you can eat all the different parts: legs, thighs, wings….it’s all good when it’s a quality chicken. Use the neck and other pieces to make stock. 2. Don’t eat as much – 1 serving should be about 4 ounces which is the size of your ipod and about ½ a breast. If you’re used to eating 1 whole breast, try eating half. When you’re eating a quality piece of meat you’ll probably find you’re satisfied on less. 3. Pick up directly from a farm or invest in a farm share. Check out eatwild.com for farms in your area.
Jamie Oliver just had a special on the Food Network called Jamie’s Fowl Dinners which went into detail about chicken farming and the benefits of humanely raised chickens. I highly recommend watching it to see the differences for yourself.