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What Is Free-Range Chicken and What Does Free-Range Really Mean?

March 29, 2022
Time to read: 7 minutes

“Free-range chicken” is a marketing term used by the food industry. It is meant to appleal to consumers who care about the conditions in which farmed animals were raised. However, the term free-range is part of a confusing set of labels that fail to fully inform most well-meaning shoppers. It’s just one example of the food industry using misleading labels so that it appears to be meeting the growing ethical demands of consumers who want better lives for the animals that eventually end up on their plates. We know, however, that because of the lack of a precise definition of the term, free-range chickens’ lives are often nearly identical to the lives of chickens in industrial factory farms.

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What Is Free-Range Chicken?    

When free-range chicken is labeled as such by the USDA, chickens and egg-laying hens must have continuous access to outdoor space for more than 51 percent of the animals’ lives. There is no guarantee that the birds will actually get to use that outdoor space, or if they do, that they will spend much time there. A free-range chicken could be living in a vast industrial shed with a door to a small enclosed outdoor space (with no definied size requirement)  and be expected to share that outdoor area with 20,000 to 30,000 birds living in the same overcrowded housing.

The loosely defined requirements and limited oversight makes it easy for corporations to continue raising chickens in extremely confined conditions, indoors, while taking advantage of the more valuable free-range label. Outside space provided to free-range chickens is often just a formality: it’s likely too small, barren, and otherwise inadequate for the thousands of chickens being raised in a farm for slaughter. 

Requirements for Free-Range Chicken

The word “access” is an empty requirement for free-range chicken. This “access” is often too little to provide the dignity and quality of life for chickens that most consumers would expect.

We know from advocacy groups like The Humane Society that the problem with free-range chicken requirements is a lack of standards. For example, how many total chickens can access the outdoor space at the same time, and how often or how long is the outdoor space available to them? There is also no guarantee that the land outside will be an interesting site to explore or meet the complex natural needs of chickens. Will there be plants to step on, hide behind, or perch in? The “free-range” label does not answer these questions. 

Is Free-Range Chicken the Same as Organic?    

No, free-range chicken is not the same as organic. Free-range refers simply to the living spaces where chickens spend their time. Like free-range labels, the USDA organic label does require outdoor access. However,  the USDA organic label also requires that the food provided to the chickens is organic, and that they don’t receive hormones or excessive antibiotics.

Is Free-Range Chicken Better for You?

The free-range label alone does not protect chickens from most of the harmful conditions that factory farming is known for and that also damage the environment and human well-being. Free-range chicken is not necessarily a healthier option for consumers at the supermarket, and it does not address issues of pollution and antibiotic overuse that have significant negative effects on public health. 

Do Free-Range Chickens Contain Hormones?

All chickens have hormones. But whether or not chickens raised for meat or eggs have added hormones is not affected by whether they are free-range. 

Is Free-Range Better for Chickens?    

The chicken industry’s standards for chickens who are called free-range are not strong enough to say that free-range chickens have a better life than their counterparts, from the perspective of anyone who cares about chicken welfare. The author Jonathan Safran Foer details the experiences of most free-range chickens in the United States in his book Eating Animals:

“Imagine a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch—and the door is closed all but occasionally.” 

Safran Foer goes on to explain that for egg-laying hens, the USDA allows farmers to self-define the term free-range—so there is not even a requirement for the chickens to have access to the outdoors. On egg farms, free-range chickens are likely still packed in massive often without any sunlight. 

What Are the Disadvantages of Free-Range Chicken?  

The ASPCA provides a chart for understanding chicken labels that you can use to compare the different marketing terms used in the egg and meat industries, including the more stringent Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane certifications. Compared to other certifications, “free-range” is a bottom-rung label only a step above the hollow term “natural” when it comes to telling you about how the chicken that you’re about to eat was raised. 

As the ASPCA chart reveals, free-range labeling fails to provide meaningful standards for on-farm welfare, the indoor space given to each bird, environmental enrichment, outdoor access, selective breeding for good chicken health, and use of natural light. The term free-range is also silent on how long you can transport chickens, use of antibiotics, and audits of farm facilities. Finally, when chicken has a “free-range” sticker, there is no guarantee that farms will have been in compliance with even the one standard required, that of outdoor access.

Worker Welfare

The term free-range also does not address the conditions  for  workers on a chicken farm. Workers in the chicken industry are often Latinx, Black, Indigenous and people of the global majority, or are otherwise socially marginalized. These workers have dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs in which they are easily taken advantage of because of their nationalities and citizenship statuses. Meanwhile, most of the predominantly white chicken farmers in the United States are working under ruthless contracts akin to sharecropping controlled by big food companies like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride. 

Even the more esteemed Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification does not tell you how workers are treated in farms and processing plants in terms of their wages, healthcare benefits, or working conditions. While it is not a certification program geared towards individual consumers, the Good Food Purchasing Program is an example of what it looks like to include the dignified treatment of both animals and the human workforce under the same initiative, seeking to improve the food system through changes to procurement in cities and major institutions.

Ammonia 

Deciding to buy a free-range chicken does not tell you about the quality of the air or hygiene levels in the houses where they lived. According to worker accounts, the ammonia hits your eyes and your lungs like a wall when you enter a typical chicken house, where workers have to wear respirators in order to even work inside the building. The chickens themselves get ammonia burns on their bellies from having to sit in their own waste all day long. Birds’ air sacs are twice as sensitive as those of mammals. So workplace regulations around ammonia levels based on what is safe for humans are likely far worse for chickens themselves.

Other labels do address the deadly air pollution.Certified Humane poultry houses must keep their litter clean. Ventilation is required for birds raised following the Animal Welfare Approved standards. In theory, these practices may help address the poor air quality and toxic levels of ammonia caused by chicken waste piling up on the floor of a barn. 

Debeaking

The term free-range still allows for facial mutilation, or debeaking. Debeaking is the painful cutting off of a baby chick’s beak, which makes it hard for chickens to clean themselves, explore their world, and eat food. In the United States, debeaking is legal, but advocates around the world are trying to prohibit this practice. U.S. shoppers can search for chickens with AWA certification that prohibits any debeaking at all. Certified Humane allows beak trimming of egg-laying chickens. The Global Animal Partnership Steps 1–3, USDA Organic, and American Humane Certified certifications allow for debeaking

Poor Physical Health

Another effect of the weak definition of free-range chicken is that it allows birds to be confined in large, indoor flocks where they reach their slaughter weight within a startling seven weeks. This used to be 16 weeks in 1925, before the chicken industry began breeding chickens to grow more rapidly—so rapidly that today their hearts, lungs, and legs often cannot support their bodies. As a result, for each flock that arrives at a chicken farm from the chicken company, about 5 percent of the chickens are expected to die on-site, never making it to the slaughterhouse. It’s common for broiler chickens in factory farms to suffer “blindness, kidney damage, bone and muscle weakness, brain damage, paralysis, internal bleeding, anemia, and disturbed sexual development,” writes John Robbins in “The Food Revolution.” Meanwhile, Animal Welfare Approved and Global Animal Partnership certification programs do make their producers raise chickens that meet certain breed health requirements.

Conclusion

Free-range chicken simply means that there might have been an open window or door to the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) where your bird lived. Trying to understand the labels governing chicken welfare after the chickens have been slaughtered and packaged can be overwhelming. Animal welfare advocates have created many resources like those cited in this article that you can use to make sense of the fine print on standards for chicken farms. But trying to understand these certifications is just a starting point for a broader conversation—about what it means to have a food system that looks out for the well-being of both workers and chickens, and protects the environment we all rely on. The simplest action we can take to help chickens is to leave them off of your plate and choose  from one of the many more humane, sustainable, and nutritious plant-based alternatives at the grocery  store or even restaurants like KFC.

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