Like most non-farming Americans, when I see the terms “free-range” and “cage-free”, my imagination takes me to a sunny Midwestern farm where clean, happy, active chickens spend their days in bliss and the understanding that their eggs will be taken or that they will soon be slaughtered. In reality, why shouldn’t I think this? Special labels have been produced, small farms organized, availability in healthier food markets and higher pricing all point to satiating a growing number of humane-conscious consumers. It seems and feels right… right? Well why don’t we, for the sake of curiosity, ask: what does “free-range” and “cage-free” mean if it isn’t ideally what I had just described? What are the implied meanings and do they have different meanings to someone else?
Since the USDA regulates all of the food we buy, let’s take a look at what the term means to them:
“FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING:
Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has
been allowed access to the outside.”
Cage-free is not legally recognized by the USDA, but some manufacturers simply state that no cages are used in the poultry housing, but outdoor access is not necessary. Note that this only applies to poultry in the United States. Sounds simple enough, but now that we know this, what exactly is the difference between “FRCF” and so-called “conventional” poultry manufacturing? Apparently, it is simply only the cage and outdoor access. Now that in itself does not sound like a very big difference to conventional manufacturing, and it isn’t in many farms. The same basic abusive practices such as beak trimming, increased breeding cycling, killing male chicks, overcrowded farms, gassing of spent chickens, and filthy and noxious environments are still evident. We can’t speak for all farms, but each farm is mandated to provide access to the outside, which may sometimes be a small door to a small outdoor opening.
Those FRCR chickens which are also grown hormone-free have a higher rate of mortality without the antibiotics to help them cope with the bacteria from the large amounts of fecal matter, burns from laying in urine soaked floors and general lesions from an overcrowded farm. Those that are drugged with hormones have grown too fast and too large to even walk themselves to the outdoors.
We understand that not every single farm in the United States conducts these practices. What we need to remember is that if we cannot determine where our chicken and eggs are coming from — the good or bad guys — then it’s up to us to demand better explanations based on humane practices and consciousness of the public, and not misleading consumers to benefit the bottom lines of the largest mass producing poultry manufacturers.
So if you are concerned about animal welfare, be aware of what free-range really means. If there are farms around your area, it might be best to see what their practices are like and get your poultry from very small producers you can assess.
Although not all labels are approved by the USDA, here is a guide rom the Humane Society concerning the food labels used to describe animal welfare: