Are Chickens Vegetarian or Omnivores?
At the grocery store I can’t help but notice the cartons of eggs and packages of fresh chicken touting, “Vegetarian Fed!” as if vegetarian fed chickens are something to celebrate. Am I the only one who scratches her head at the idea of a vegetarian hen? Are chickens vegetarian?
Chickens are omnivores, folks. Just like you and me. When left alone in nature, chickens eat grass and other vegetation, seeds and bugs. Chickens eat mice, as well.
Chickens are not vegetarian and if we want incredibly nutritious eggs and chicken to serve our families, we don’t need to eat eggs from vegetarian hens or eat chickens that were fed a 100% vegetarian diet.
What’s the Big Deal About Vegetarian Fed Chickens?
I understand the point that the poultry and egg companies are trying to make. They want us to know that their laying hens and meat chickens are not fed the standard industry diet which used to/maybe still does contain all sorts of nastiness such as chicken waste, leftover animal bits from other animal processing, antibiotics, etc. (source)
While chickens are omnivores, they will become sick from eating other sick animals, animal meal or by-products and contaminants. I appreciate that some egg and chicken producers don’t feed their chickens this crud. However, by being vegetarian, the chickens are missing a vital part of their natural diet.
The vegetarian-fed label is not an indication that the chickens were treated humanely (maybe by government standards they were, but not by nature’s standards), given enough space or light, allowed to pasture (the free-range label does not mean a chicken ever touched grass or was warmed by the sun) or were optimally healthy. It just means they weren’t fed with leftover protein from other chickens or animals.
When a company touts eggs or chicken that are 100% Vegetarian Fed it says to me that the chicken lived its whole life inside, likely in cramped conditions not suitable for creating physically and psychologically healthy animals.
Which Are the Best Eggs and Poultry to Buy?
If you want to be sure that you are getting top quality eggs, find a farmer in your area who raises pastured chickens for meat and/or eggs. Only buy from farmers who are willing to explain to you their farming and sustainability philosophy and who are willing to show you around the farm. To find farmers such as these in your area check out Local Harvest.
The next best option are store bought eggs or poultry that come from chickens that were pastured or free-range. (For eggs, I like Pete and Gerry’s, Vital Farms, and Nellie’s.)
Cage free eggs and poultry might be a decent third option. Remember, cage free doesn’t mean the chickens spent their lives roaming a pasture and soaking up the sun.
Eggs or chickens labeled organic mean little to me. A chicken can be fed organic grain and not have a balanced diet or the ability to peck away in a pasture.