If you’ve followed our articles up to this point, then you’re familiar with the truth behind “cage-free” eggs and the fact that being free from a cage doesn’t necessarily mean being free from confinement.
Following the dissection of this one ubiquitous claim, we’ll take a closer look at another ever-present label seen on egg cartons across the country – “free range”. I don’t know about you but when I hear “free-range chickens”, my head immediately paints idyllic pictures of chickens roaming open grasslands, a red barn standing not too far off in the distance. If this is the first time with us, allow me to introduce you to the motif of these articles – reality is often a far cry from expectations in the food industry. What I’m saying is – no, free-range chickens are not literally ranging freely. Alas, here we present yet another example of the ways that the marketing efforts of food manufacturers have leveraged clever languaging in order to instill false impressions in the heads of we the consumers.
So if “free-range” doesn’t actually mean what we presume it to mean, how is this term defined? Well believe it or not – it’s not straight-forward. There are several different organizations that currently administer and regulate the labeling of “free-range” on egg cartons. However, seeing as they are the industry standard, we’ll use the USDA as a reference. The USDA’s definition of free-range states that “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” The keyword to note in this description is “access”. There’s nothing in the actual definition that speaks to how much time they actually must spend outdoors, how much outdoor space they have access to, or if they can even access their outdoor space in the first place. Theoretically a chicken could be raised inside of a giant shed that’s only outdoor access point lies on the other side of an insurmountable mass made of thousands of chickens, and this hen could be living in a “free-range” environment.
In effect, according to the USDA’s definition, the living conditions of “free-range” hens are not too dissimilar from those of “cage-free” hens – those that are still subject to mass containment in sub-par environmental conditions that pose serious threats to the chickens’ health. The difference is, of course, the potential for free-range hens to actually find themselves outside of their hen house. Unfortunately, within the USDA’s distinctions, there’s a lot that goes unregulated within these situations. For example, the access point of the hens can be anywhere from an actual door or merely a “pop hole” for a head to stick through. Also, there is nothing to speak of for minimum space requirements of the outdoor access, or the conditions of the outdoor space the hens are allowed. With as many as 10,000 birds per hundred acres allowed inside of Free-Range housing structures, and no regulation as to how big a space they’re alloted outdoors, you can imagine the potential buildup for waste and mess. What should be a chance to bath in dust and bask in fresh air turns into bathing in their own filth. There’s also the question of incentive: food, water, and nesting boxes for these hens are all stored within their contained facilities. Anyone who’s raised chickens (and tried to relocate them) knows that chickens like to stay close to home – close to food & water. Suffice to say, the label “free-range” does NOT translate to the presumed image that most easily comes to mind – the quaint hillside littered with happy hens roaming for forage. Rather, it is yet another step in the right direction, like cage-free, that doesn’t quite fit the bill of what the people really want for their chickens.
Just short of actually going there, purchasing cartons with the Humane Farm Animal Care “Pasture Raised” label will bring you as close to Old Mcdonald’s farm as any store-bought eggs can. With each hen provided at least 108 square feet of outdoor access, in addition to their barn-cover, pasture raised birds are much more closely living the lives we hoped for our free-range layers. Another key feature of pasture-raised operations is the rotation of pastures. The constant movement of the flock helps to keep the birds in healthy, exploratory motion and also nourish the soil by distributing their manure more evenly across the farm. Given access to new swaths of vegetation each day, chickens are provided with fresh forage and avoid over fertilizing any one section of the farm – a key factor in the environmental sustainability of raising any animal. It’s within these allowances, the access to actually move outdoors and the rotating pastures, that chickens are able to live out their nature and experience a life of wellbeing. Opting for “Pasture-Raised” cartons stamped with “Certified Humane”, “Global Animal Partnership” and/or “Animal Welfare Approved” – the current most reputable organizations who are advocating for the welfare of egg laying hens and other livestock, will ensure that the eggs you purchase are coming from chickens living their best lives.
As a charitable farm focused on feeding our Veterans in need, we want to make the biggest impact possible with our donations – which is why we’ve chosen eggs as a central provision. Eggs are one of the most nutritionally complete foods available to us, not to mention they’re just darn delicious. Thinking personally, we should want the best for ourselves in terms of food quality, and the highest quality eggs come from chickens living the highest quality of life. With a more nuanced understanding of egg labeling, it’s our hope that you feel more confident in trusting the product you choose to buy, whether that means buying a dozen eggs from a local farmer or grabbing a carton off the grocery store shelf. It’s a wide, ever-changing world when it comes to food marketing and just as companies don’t seem to slow down with conjuring up the newest and shiniest of claims, we don’t plan on stopping either! As long as there is more for the public to understand, we’ll be here to clear the water and make buying food simple again.