I noticed a label I’d never seen before on Purdue chicken when I was at the grocery store the other day — USDA Process Verified. You can see the label in the photo above. Purdue’s website defines the USDA Process Verified label, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

USDA Process Verified - Companies with approved USDA Process Verified Programs are able to make marketing claims associated with their process verified points such as age, source, feeding practices, or other raising and processing claims and market themselves as "USDA Process Verified" with use of the "USDA Process Verified" shield and term. (Source: USDA)

To receive approval for a Process Verified Program, a company is obligated to:

  1. Present a detailed program to the USDA with support for why this program is appropriate and accurate
  2. Implement the program successfully
  3. Pass continual audits from the USDA AMS auditors
  4. If new validated practices evolve in the future, the program must change to include these new practices
Perdue is the first poultry company to have a "USDA Process Verified" program. Process Verified means that Perdue has been evaluated and verified by the USDA in the following two areas:
  • All vegetarian fed - Chickens are fed a high quality vegetarian diet, with no animal by-products.
  • Raised cage free - Perdue chickens are free to roam within the chicken houses.
The first thing I notice when reading this explanation is that this is all about marketing and not about the chickens. “Companies … are able to make marketing claims associated with their process …”

Let’s look at the two marketing claims Purdue can make because of the USDA Process Verified label.

All vegetarian fed – We usually don’t think of it this way, but chickens are not vegetarians. Sure, they don’t eat other animals, but they do eat bugs and worms. They are not strictly plant eaters. By saying that the chickens are vegetarian fed, what Purdue (and any other company that labels their chicken or eggs vegetarian fed) means is that the company didn’t chop up leftover animal pieces (including those from chickens) and add it to the feed. The chickens aren’t being fed naturally when they are being vegetarian fed, but on the bright side, they aren’t being turned into cannibals, either.

Raised cage free – Cage-free does not mean free-range or free-roaming, but I’m sure that marketers hope that consumers think the terms are synonymous. Cage-free simply means that the chickens aren’t kept cooped up in cages inside the chicken house. They are free to roam within their chicken houses if there is room. The chickens might be crammed in the chicken houses with little room to move, but they are technically cage-free. They also never see sunlight or breathe fresh air.

You’ll notice at the bottom of the label that the chicken also has “no hormones or steroids” added.

According to the USDA,

Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim "no hormones added" cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."
As for the steroids, I had trouble tracking down the information on the USDA website (it’s not an easy site to navigate), but according to the Goldnplump website “There are no hormones or steroids approved for use in chicken. Consequently, there are no added hormones in any chicken sold commercially in the United States.”

There isn’t an option for Purdue to put hormones or steroids in their chickens, but the claim on their packaging (and Purdue certainly isn’t the only manufacturer that does it) might have consumers thinking that Purdue is choosing to not use them.

What does all this mean? To me, it means that chickens marked USDA Process Verified were raised only slightly less inhumanely than the rest of Purdue’s chickens.

USDA Process Verified is a marketing label designed to give consumers the impression that they are buying meat from a chicken that lived a happy life. In reality it’s nothing more than a marketing label.  

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