When It Comes To Free Range Poultry, Don’t Just Rely On The Label

by Nicola Temple on December 30, 2011

If you reach for free range poultry products in your grocery store, you might want to know what the label really means.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, chicken products can be labelled free range if the producer can prove to the Agency that the chickens have been allowed access to the outside.

This definition is not only extremely vague, there’s no third party certification process.

This leaves a great deal of ambiguity in terms of stocking densities, quantity of outdoor access and general quality of life for the birds.

I have to admit that having grown up on a small farm, my concept of free-range is happy little chickens roaming through the garden picking at slugs and grubs by day and cuddled up in a secure barn with perches and nesting boxes at night. For commercial producers this is usually not the case.

Free range undefined:

free range poultry

Free range poultry is not well defined and doesn't mean that the birds have access to green grass, dirt, perches, or nesting boxes; things that improve the quality of life of these animals. CC image courtesy of Nigel Wedge on Flickr.

First, because the term ‘outside’ hasn’t been defined, this could mean a fenced-in grass enclosure, a gravel area, or even a concrete pad. It just has to be outside.

Second, the quantity of outside time is not defined, meaning the chickens could technically be allowed access once in the duration of their lives – not exactly a good quality of life.

Third, free range does not ensure that stocking densities are lower than what is found in caged farms. Birds may still be overcrowded, severely compromising their quality of life.

Fourth, there are no specifications with respect to access to poultry necessities. Chickens and other poultry have natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, taking dust baths and stretching wings. If they are unable to do these things because the facilities are not available to them, it causes them stress.

Symptoms of stressed poultry:

Keeping poultry at high densities and preventing them from performing normal bird behaviours can cause the animals a lot of stress. With chickens, this often leads to cannibalism. As a result, many poultry farmers de-beak their chickens to prevent them from pecking each other.

Elevated stress hormones in poultry also prevent them from producing Omega fatty acids. These fats aren’t only vital to the health of the chicken, they’re also an important component of our diet. As a result, many farmers are feeding their poultry grain that has had these fatty acids added  and you might even see this on the packaging. While this seems like an easy solution, you have to look at the whole cycle.

Where are those fatty acids coming from? Many of them are harvested from fish oils. So, we are harvesting from the ocean to feed our chickens, to feed us. Many of our fisheries are collapsing around the world, putting into question the sustainability of such a process.

Free range versus pastured

Some poultry products may be labelled as pastured rather than free range.  This label indicates that the poultry have been kept in a pasture (i.e. grassed area) and allowed to forage for a portion of their diet on their own.

You can search for pastured poultry producers in your area here.

 Organic free range

There are a few advantages to purchasing organic free range poultry products:

1 – You know that to carry the USDA Certified Organic label, the producer and product have had to be certified by a third party.

2 – The poultry are not given hormones or antibiotics.

3 – The food the poultry is fed must also be certified organic.

However, the certified organic label, still doesn’t go much further in defining the quality of life of the poultry in terms of access to the outdoors.

Best poultry choices

Armed with this information, you may now be questioning your normal poultry products. That’s a good thing – we all need to question where our food comes from. So, how do we make the healthiest and most ethically and environmentally informed choices about our poultry products?

BEST OPTION: Well, I hate to say it, but the best option is to eliminate poultry products from your diet or at the very least, reduce them. There is plenty of evidence to show that you can obtain all the essential nutrients you require from a vegetarian or vegan life-style.

2nd BEST OPTION: Know your producer. This may mean having your own chickens if you have the space or perhaps going to a local market or to a local farm that has eggs and poultry products. If you get to know your producer, and particularly if you have an opportunity to visit the farm, you will have a better understanding of how the animals are treated and feel better about that Sunday omelette!

3rd BEST OPTION: If you are going to rely on the label, then choose a certified organic free range option as at least then you will know it has been certified by a third party. However, beyond that, do some research on the poultry producer.  Ask the grocery store where the product is sold what they can tell you about the producer, do some internet research, give them a call and ask some key questions about how their animals are kept.

Hopefully this has opened your eyes to the ambiguities around free range poultry. We live in a challenging time when we aren’t always sure where our food comes from. We don’t only have to try and make good choices around what is healthy for us, but we also have to consider the most environmentally friendly and humane  choices also. Watch this short video for a bit more information on free range versus caged poultry. I’ve selected it specifically as there aren’t any gruesome or disturbing images, however if you are looking for some shock factor…there are plenty of those kinds of videos out there too.

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