Chicken is the only certified organic animal we carry — whole birds and parts. Currently we prefer and exclusively stock local pastured lamb, pork, and beef, but chicken is a different, well, bird. When it comes to giving our customers the chicken they want — consistently flavorful, not too gamy, and in parts — at an economical price, USDA organic is the best choice for us.

We started out thinking we’d sell local pastured birds. We did the legwork.  We went to the farms. We quickly realized no one local farm would have enough chickens to sell to us. Our weekly orders are too high. Then we sorted through confusing USDA Agricultural Marketing Service rules we ran into, including that small farms can slaughter birds on site and sell them at farmers’ markets but not to a butcher shop. And we squared all of this information with the fact that we’re running a business. In order to sell pastured poultry, we would have to rely on several different farms with big enough flocks to make our numbers. And then we’d have to have those birds slaughtered at a federal facility. This is both logistically and financially impossible. And the birds, if we could swing it, would never taste consistent. American palates for the most part are used to the taste of confined birds, not the texture or flavor of pastured birds, which must be cooked carefully or they can go chewy. One overly rubbery bite and we lose customers.

Thankfully we had another great option for a steady source: Certified organic birds from a producer that can meet our weekly demand for whole birds as well as parts, which make for a quick dinner or a small meal. It’s too expensive for us to cut up the whole birds for you. We strive to bridge the gap between boutique meat shops and grocery stores. Our chicken has to be affordable.

We tasted around and found a solid source of certified organic birds raised in the mid-Atlantic. The quality and flavor is consistent and the price is right. Because chickens are slaughtered at a much younger age than steer or other livestock, we can’t inspect a flock before we receive them. The USDA organic certification offers us an added layer of protection in terms of quality and safety.

USDA organic regulations specify that chicken must be fed organic feed and they are never given growth hormones, antibiotics, or animal by-products. They have to have year-round access to the outdoors. USDA organic rules also stipulate that synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, sewage sludge, genetic modification, and irradiation are banned. All of this must be third party certified by a USDA approved food-certifying agency.

We get our chicken fresh, never frozen. (You can tell by looking at the bones: if they have been frozen, you’ll see red spots.) We eye, feel, and smell every delivery. Chicken should be firm — you should be able to push into the muscle and have it bounce back. Fresh skin is slippery smooth, never sticky or tacky, and it should adhere to the muscles. Some parts might be detached slightly, but you shouldn’t be able to take your fingers and go underneath the skin. There’s a coating of fat there and we look for it to be pretty thick.

For us, USDA organic chicken is a win-win in terms of safety, consistency, availability, and price. All this and they’re delicious, too. What’s your favorite chicken recipe?