What's the Deal With "Vegetarian Fed"?
This is a question that crops up a lot on BYC. Often enough that I decided to create a static page to point people towards. Saves me the typing! The "vegetarian chickens" issue comes from two directions:
  1. Eggs and chicken at the grocery store labeled "vegetarian fed."
  2. Chicken feed labeled "no animal protein/vegetable protein sources only."
Chickens, as every chicken owner knows, are not vegetarians. They evolved as omnivores, willing and able to take advantage of any food source that came their way. Whether it be grass and clover or baby mice and mealworms, chickens will pretty much eat it! In fact, chickens NEED two key nutrients which are found only in meat: lysine and methionine.
So what's the deal?
The deal is, you have two choices:
  1. A feed based on vegetable proteins, ideally with those missing meat-only nutrients added. (Purina's Layena SunFresh , for example, is made from vegetable protein sources but includes lysine and methionine.)
  2. A feed which contains "animal protein." Note the "air quotes."
When a feed label just says "animal protein," it could literally be anything. Commercial chicken feed can and does contain some really awful stuff, including but not limited to:
  • Ground up downer cattle (cattle too sick to stand - the FDA says you can't feed downer cattle to people, but the USDA says it's legal to put them in animal feed).
  • Feathers, bones, bodies, feet, and offal from battery hens. These are hens which are raised in cages the size of a shoebox. When they die, they are likely sick, malnourished, and pumped full of antibiotics. Antibiotics and other medications are definitely passed into the feed, and illnesses can be.
  • Plastic. Many rendering plants receive spoiled styrofoam and plastic wrapped cuts of meat from grocery stores. Since unwrapping the meat would be time-consuming, typically they just dump the whole thing into the grinder, plastic wrap and all.
  • Soiled bedding (chicken poop and sawdust) from chicken feed lots.
  • Cattle and pig manure.
  • Cats and dogs euthanized at animal shelters, including the chemicals used to euthanize them, and any medication the animals were on prior to their death.
Given this choice - between a vegetable protein feed with supplemental nutrients, and "animal protein," which would you prefer? Many consumers prefer the former, which is why you see "vegetarian fed" and "no animal protein sources" as a selling point.
Further reading: