This month in Good Housekeeping (January 2013), they scrutinized the labels on chicken*. They went through the buzz-words frequently found to help you determine if it is worth the extra money that usually accompanies these terms.
Here's my rating key:
$ = don't bother
$$ = a better option
$$$ = worth the extra cash
* I'd link to the actual article, but alas, I couldn't find it on-line.
Chickens can run around outdoors, but there isn't any guarantee that they actually did.
My Rating: $$ - I'm going to have a little hope that if they had access to the outdoors, they ran around instead of being crammed into cages where they aren't allowed to move all. Also keep in mind that the USDA only requires outside access, not necessarily the ability to move around without fencing, a specific outside size area or a certain amount of "exercise time" for them.
Yeah, this means diddly-squat. There is no USDA oversight to this terminology and some that have been labeled as "natural" have been injected with antibiotics.
My Rating: $ - It's simply a marketing term with no meat behind it. Just a reason to charge more money.
The practice of injecting hormones into US raised poultry is illegal... and has been since 1959.
My Rating: $ - If this is all they can come up with, spend your money elsewhere. All chicken is hormone free, so don't pay extra for this on the label.
One of the only terms actually regulated by the USDA, the farm must prove that the chickens eat only organic food and raised without any antibiotics or other injections.
My Rating: $$$ - This is the real muscle of the industry since it is regulated. Not only do the poultry farmers have to prove that they are up to standards, but the feed providers need to prove THEY are up to standards... for SEVEN YEARS.
RAISED WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS
Similar to Free-Range, this definition can be loosely interpreted because of the term "raised". It refers to only what happens after the chicken has been hatched.
My Rating: $ - According to Good Housekeeping, a company injected the eggs with antibiotics before they were hatched, so I wouldn't put much faith in anyone using this terminology.
If you don't think that ANY of these terms make a difference, let me share a story with you. I was making dinner for family once and went to Whole Foods for organic chicken. At the last minute, I found out more people were going to be coming, so I scooted out to the closest grocery store and bought their fresh chicken. When cooking, I sectioned the chicken off to make sure I fed "the good stuff" first.
Just as I expected, we ate all of the organic chicken and someone wanted another helping. He ate the chicken and then asked me if I had done something different to the last batch. He said it didn't taste "bad" but it tasted different. When I told him what was different, he said that it didn't taste as fresh or juicy.
So keep that story and these terms in mind next time you are out shopping for chicken. And remember, you don't have to be having people over to get the best. You deserve the freshest and most delicious food even when you're eating alone.