Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Costco Chicken
The company’s rotisserie chicken is much beloved but also controversial. Here's what you need to know, plus some healthful alternatives.
Costco’s rotisserie chickens are a phenomenon. Sold under the franchise’s brand name, Kirkland Signature, the whole chickens are super-tasty, super-popular, and super-cheap. At just $5, in fact, they can be less expensive than a whole uncooked bird.
But they’re also the focus of controversy. Last year the animal rights group Mercy for Animals sent an undercover investigator to work—and film—at one of Costco’s factory chicken farms in Nebraska. The resulting video, released in February 2021, showed swollen, injured, and deformed chickens living in a crowded, darkened warehouse. It was the subject of a New York Times opinion piece and became a central part of an initiative by Mercy for Animals called Costco Exposed.
Since then, Mercy for Animals has pressured Costco to sign the Better Chicken Commitment, a petition from the organization and several other animal rights groups. It urges the poultry industry to change how it raises the birds, improving their welfare as well as the safety of the meat that is sold.
Costco’s Rotisserie Chicken
Though Costco’s whole roasted rotisserie chicken has become famous because of its convenience, flavor, and low price, the product isn’t unique. Other chains also sell inexpensive rotisserie chicken. For instance, ShopRite offers a roasted broiler from one of its house brands, Bowl & Basket, for $5, the same price as Costco’s.
But while roasted rotisserie chickens are convenient, tasty, and easy on your wallet, they’re often not so good for your health. As CR previously reported, a salt solution is often injected into the cooked chickens to enhance flavor and tenderness.
Costco’s rotisserie chicken has 460 mg of sodium per 3-ounce serving. That’s one-fifth of the maximum amount of sodium adults should consume in a day (2,300 mg). ShopRite’s Bowl & Basket chicken has even more sodium, with 490 mg per 3-ounce serving.
A Better Option: Cook Your Own
Of course, people buy rotisserie chickens when they don’t want to cook at home. But Amy Keating, RD, CR’s resident nutritionist, says a roast chicken can be a simple meal to prepare once you get your recipe down. It can be healthier, too.
“You can roast your own chicken using the oven, multi-cooker, grill, or even convection toaster oven,” she says. “But skip the salt, or use just a touch, and season it with a variety of dried herbs and spices, such as pepper, thyme, rosemary, sage, and garlic powder. For extra flavor, you can put several garlic cloves and a lemon sliced in quarters in the cavity of the bird.”
Costco’s Conventional Raw Chicken
The company’s rotisserie chickens are like the chickens it sells uncooked under its Kirkland Signature brand.
Most of the estimated 9 billion chickens produced in the U.S. each year are raised on factory farms in windowless buildings with tens of thousands of birds. The crowded conditions have an impact on animal welfare and can foster the spread of dangerous bacteria, such as salmonella and campylobacter, which are particularly prevalent in chicken.
A Better Option: Choose Organic
Costco sells a Kirkland Signature Organic whole chicken. You’ll pay more for it: It cost $2.29 per pound at a Costco in suburban New York in late August, compared with $0.99 per pound for the company’s conventionally raised bird. That’s less, on average, than what chickens cost at grocery stores nationwide: $3.67 per pound for organic vs. $1.25 per pound for conventional.
Chickens bearing the USDA Organic label differ from conventionally raised birds in several important ways. First, they must be raised without any antibiotics. Conventionally raised birds, on the other hand, can be given antibiotics before they get sick to ward off disease, a practice that reduces the effectiveness of those antibiotics over time and can lead to widespread antibiotic resistance. Note, though, that if organic chickens do become ill and need antibiotics, organic regulations require that the animals be treated, but their meat can’t be sold as organic.
In addition, chickens with the organic label must be fed organic feed, which means it was produced without pesticides or genetically modified seed.
Finally, any chicken bearing the USDA Organic label is supposed to be raised in slightly more humane conditions. Costco’s spokesperson said the company adheres to the Department of Agriculture’s standards for organic birds—meaning they live in less crowded conditions than conventionally raised chicken—and its organically raised chickens “have access to the outdoors.” Indeed, the USDA’s standards for organic chickens stipulate that the birds should be provided exposure to sunlight, fresh air, shade, and exercise areas.
Still, there are limitations when it comes to animal welfare with the USDA Organic label, and it gets only a Fair rating in CR’s food label analysis on that measure. For instance, while the chickens are supposed to have access to the outdoors, the USDA hasn’t enforced this requirement. Further, the organic label doesn’t prohibit farmers from making physical alterations to the animals, such as trimming the chicken’s beaks, and it doesn’t cover animal welfare requirements en route to the slaughterhouse or while there.
Another Good Option: Look for Humanely Raised Chicken
If you are particularly concerned about animal welfare, look for chickens sold with either the Certified Humane Raised & Handled label (find retailers that sell birds with that label) or the Animal Welfare Approved label (find retailers that carry those birds).
CR rates the Certified Humane Raised & Handled label as Very Good when it comes to the animal welfare of poultry raised for meat, which is higher than the rating we give on that measure to birds with the USDA Organic label. While outdoor access isn’t required, the birds are given slightly more room than the industry norm. Plus, the litter in the chicken house must be kept clean and the birds must be given environmental enrichment, like straw bales, to keep them active.
The standard also dictates that farmers aren’t allowed to leave the lights on continuously in the chicken houses, which prevents the birds from sleeping so that they eat more and grow faster—a major animal welfare concern. Also, a company-appointed “animal welfare officer” must be at the slaughterhouse to ensure the birds are stunned adequately before slaughter to reduce suffering.
Standards for the Animal Welfare Approved seal are even more demanding; it’s rated Excellent for animal welfare by CR’s food analysts. The birds must be raised in a pasture rather than in close confinement. If chicken houses are used at all, ventilation and natural light are required, and, as required for the Certified Humane Raised & Handled label, the lights can’t be left on continuously. Further, this seal indicates that painful procedures, such as beak trimming, are prohibited. And the Animal Welfare Approved label requires gentle handling and proper stunning during the slaughtering process.
You could also try to purchase chicken from a local farmer or farmers market, where you can ask about farming practices.
Preparing Your Chicken Safely
Whichever type of chicken you choose, always practice rigorous hygiene. Even precooked rotisserie chickens can be inadvertently contaminated with germs. The best way to be sure you’re not ingesting dangerous pathogens is to cook (or reheat) your chicken to an internal temperature of 165° F. This will ensure that any remaining bacteria have been killed before you dig in to eat.
Here are some other ways to avoid picking up germs that may linger on your chicken and contaminate the rest of your kitchen.
• Wash your hands well with soap and water before and after touching raw chicken.
• Consider using separate cutting boards and utensils for meat and produce, so you don’t spread bacteria from the meat to the vegetables or fruit.
• Never rinse raw chicken in a sink because this spreads bacteria in the sink and to surrounding countertops. There’s no need to rinse or clean the chicken.
• Always use a clean, fresh plate to serve cooked meat; don’t reuse the same plates and utensils you used to prepare the raw chicken.