The difference between Costco and Whole Foods rotisserie chicken

When you shop at Whole Foods, you know there's a good chance that whatever you're buying is free-range, wild-caught, grass-fed, non-GMO, insert-your-sustainability-buzzword-here. But no one ever said it was cheap to do the right thing. Take, for example, a one-pound rotisserie chicken from Whole Foods, which can cost up to $9.99 (via Eater). Compare that to Costco's iconic loss leader, the $4.99 three-pound rotisserie chicken. In case you don't have a calculator handy, a pound of poultry from Whole Foods is 200 percent more expensive than one from Costco. Aside from a significant discrepancy in price per pound, though, is there much else that's different about birds from these stores?

Sure there is. Namely, taste! A Fox News rating of six different grocery stores' rotisserie chickens had Whole Foods and Fresh Market tied for dead last, while Costco was ranked the "best of the best." This bird's got a cult following — there's even a Costco Rotisserie Chicken Fanpage on Facebook that has more than 17,000 followers. Fans share pics of themselves, hamming with the birds. One set of high schoolers even stopped by Costco to take a photo of themselves, dressed in tuxes and cocktail dresses, with their favorite birds on Homecoming night. There's even a meme about rotisserie chicken as the perfect Halloween trick-or-treating surprise. Discussions often turn tongue-in-cheek theories for how on earth mass-produced meat could taste so very, very good. "We believe they are injected with a heroin type substance, because we can't get enough of them," posited one user.

Costco birds taste better, but is buying Whole Foods in better taste?

Maybe no one would compare rotisserie from Whole Foods to a highly-addictive opiate, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some diehard fans. One Popsugar reviewer said she always grabs a bird whenever she's at the organic grocer — despite being a "20something on a budget" — noting that this weeknight staple is typically available in not one but three flavors: original, BBQ, and, her pick, an herb and lemon option that smells fragrantly of thyme.

In fact, rotisserie chicken is a hot commodity at all Whole Foods locations. Shoppers deplete stores' supplies of this ready-to-serve favorite during the dinner rush. "I'd say it's one of our top 20 top-selling items," Julia Obici, global executive coordinator of culinary and hospitality for Whole Foods, told Eater. It's important to note that Whole Foods' chickens are both organic and hormone-free. Could this halo effect make the meat actually taste a little better? Feedback from reviewers certainly suggests this is possible. Costco rotisserie did beat out Whole Foods (and all other brands) in an Eat This, Not That! taste-test. One reviewer called Costco's version, "HEAVENLY...Always perfectly moist, perfectly spiced." But tasters also admitted eating Whole Foods' version left a better taste in their mouths, morally speaking. "I don't feel guilty eating their rotisserie chicken (organic, free range, no hormones)," was one sentiment.

But is all of this guilt justified? Exactly how much better of a life is a Whole Foods chicken leading, compared to its feathered friends at Costco's farm?

Whole Foods birds get to roam freely. Costco birds get to...breathe?

If you have to be a chicken, be a Whole Foods chicken. Pitman Farms, one of the upscale grocer's poultry suppliers, allows their birds to wander about freely both in and outdoors, with food and water available for them in multiple locations (per Whole Foods website). The Environmental Working Group (EWP) gave Whole Foods organic rotisserie chicken its highest ratings for sustainability, nutrition, and no misuse of antibiotics. EWP did not rate Costco rotisserie chicken as it only looks at foods labeled organic — to which Costco makes no such claims.

How bad are things for Costco rotisserie birds — of which 91 million were sold in 2018 alone, per CNN? On its website, Costco states, "Animal welfare is a critical component that has been integrated into all aspects of the chicken supply chain, from the hatchery to the grower barns to the processing facility." While Costco chickens aren't free-range like Whole Foods chickens, the warehouse claims it offers them space and ventilation. So, at least they can...breathe. The chickens live in a state-of-the-art hen house in Fremont, Nebraska, which just opened in 2019 and gets audited twice a year to ensure the birds are treated humanely.

This and Costco's minimal added ingredients have earned Dr. Oz's stamp of approval. The health guru called this warehouse dinner go-to one of the "healthiest processed foods out there, especially if you remove the skin," on an episode of The Dr. Oz Show.