Is Free-Range Chicken Really Free-Range? Here Are the Facts…

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Long before I went vegan, I started trying to buy more “humanely” raised animal products (e.g., eggs, chicken, beef, etc.).

If animals were going to be killed for food, I wanted them to at least have “good” lives before that happened.

But it’s harder to find food from animals raised in this way than you would think.

Here, I want to specifically look at what “free-range” actually means, and if it’s the same thing you’re picturing in your head.

Free-Range Definition

When you hear free-range in the context of chickens, you probably think of a few things:

  • No cages (as of 2017, only 11.5% of hens were cage-free)
  • Lots of room to walk around, both inside and outside
  • Free to go in or out as they please

So let’s see how the actual criteria stack up to that.

Note that it’ll differ based on country, but we’ll look at the U.S. guidelines.

From the USDA website, here’s what needs to happen for eggs to be labeled as free range: 

Eggs packed in USDA grademarked consumer packages labeled as free range must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.

That actually sounds okay at first, but there’s a big issue with it: it’s too broad.

While having “continuous” access to the outdoors sounds great, there’s a big problem with this definition.

There is no minimum size (aside from the minimum space per chicken that all farms must have, which is very small). Some free range farms will give hens lots of room to walk around outside, but factory farms are purely profit-driven, they’re not going to give chickens more space than the minimum. The outdoor area can technically be a teeny patch of dirt for a large number of hens.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of animal products come from factory farms, which means “free-range” by itself means very little.

One More Thing to Consider: Unethical Practices Like Debeaking

As a bit of a side-note, no matter which label you see on animal products like eggs (e.g. free-range, cage-free, etc.), those only cover space issues.

In the U.S. in particular, debeaking is common practice (read more about it on Wikipedia).

In short, chickens aren’t happy when they are placed in over-crowded environments, so they peck at each other. Instead of giving them more space, the solution factory farms use is to slice through and remove their beaks – a painful procedure.

There are other ethical issues like hormone and antibiotic use to keep in mind as well, none of these are affected by labels like free-range.

Free-Range at Factory Farms Vs. Local Farms

Factory farms are just evil in every sense of the word.

But what about local farms? Animals can indeed live what we’d consider a good life on smaller, independent farms.

No matter how many green stickers and buzzwords you see on animal products at most major grocery stores, almost (if not) all of their animal products come from factory farms.

Certain grocery stores like Whole Foods are generally better, which rate animal welfare on a scale (color coded next to labels in the store).

whole foods steps

The step 5 (green) products are the ones that would be “good.”

Aside from that, you’ll need to find specialty stores, farmers’ markets, or even go to the farms themselves if possible. 

It’s a lot of extra work in most cases, but if you truly care about animal welfare, I hope you’ll put in that effort.

What if You Can’t Find “Good” Free-Range Products?

I’m not going to go into a big presentation here, but there’s always the option of forgoing animal products.

Even if you’re an athlete, there are NBA and NFL players that are vegan and found their performance improved after going vegan.

Now, going vegan is also an incredibly challenging transition if you’re used to a typical Western diet (as I was for 26 years), but if you’re the type of person to care enough to look up and read about free-range products, then you’re the type of person who could handle the change.

I’m not saying to do it this second, but just keep it in the back of your mind.

And if you have any questions, I’m always here to try and help.

About the author

Dale C.

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance writer. Trying to do my small part in making the world better by writing about the wonderful world of veganism.

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