Know What You’re Eating: ‘Free Range’ Chicken

Many consumers struggle with ethical concerns about their food sources, particularly animal products like eggs, dairy, and meat. People want to be able to eat these things, but they also want to be able to do so without guilt; reading about the abuses of the commercial agriculture industry, they start to turn to alternatives. They may investigate local sources, which are an option in some regions, but more commonly, they turn to the shelves of the grocery store for the next thing, the better thing, the more humane thing.

The thing with the ‘humane’ or ‘all natural’ or ‘free farmed’ or ‘cage free’ or ‘pastured’ label, featuring pictures of happy animals relaxing in a friendly, safe environment. Those labels feature smiling farmers talking about food sourcing and ethics and how delighted they are to be able to furnish products to consumers eager to live, and eat, ethically. Some contain fun animal facts, making people feel reassured; these animal products come from people who care, people who wouldn’t abuse animals, people who farm traditionally and humanely.

Legally, there are few restrictions on this type of labeling. In the case of poultry, free range birds must have access to the outdoors.

Deconstruct that sentence for a moment, and look for the key word. Access.

As long as chickens have access to the outdoors, they, and their eggs, can be marketed and sold as ‘free range.’ This means that chickens living in battery sheds with a door opened for a few hours a day are free range, even if they don’t actually go outside because they are stressed and terrified. Other chickens may ‘range’ on dirt or gravel, without any actual pasture to graze on. This is not particularly natural for chickens, it doesn’t add anything to the quality of their eggs or meat, and it probably isn’t what people envision when they see a label promoting free range chickens.

‘Pastured’ is, legally, a meaningless label because the USDA doesn’t regulate it, which means firms can go ahead and slap that on their labels even if their birds are not actually pastured. Likewise, ‘cage free’ summons the image of happy chickens merrily clucking around a yard, which is not actually the case; these hens are kept indoors in massive facilities with shelves where chickens are allowed to run loose. It’s called high density floor confinement, which isn’t a very nice term, is it? They are not in cages, but they are trapped indoors in high stress conditions that make them susceptible to disease. They are also debeaked to prevent fighting, a common issue when hens are crowded in a close, hot, unhealthy environment.

And of course in the egg industry, male chickens are ‘disposed of’ at hatching because they have no commercial value. The idea of thousands of adorable baby chickens being gassed, buried alive, and otherwise mauled because they aren’t wanted is unpleasant, but it’s the face behind commercial egg production, whether chickens are ‘free range’ or not.

Industrial agriculture has to think in high volumes, because it’s the only way to generate a profit. It thinks of resources as disposable, and a single animal is but a resource. Animals that are sick, aggressive, or otherwise unprofitable will be culled, because there’s no reason to keep them in the flock, and when you’re raising chickens in such high volumes, you accept a certain amount of ‘waste’ as part of the work. There will be plenty of birds left at the end of culling.

Consumers with ethical concerns about their food struggle to find sources of food they feel comfortable with, and they often don’t do a lot of research. They buy a carton of ‘cage free’ eggs at the store to appease their food guilt, but they very much don’t want to know more about what that label really means, and how the hens are actually treated. Some actively don’t want to know, or when told about what they’re buying, they say that at least it’s better than buying conventional eggs, that they’re sending a message, indicating that consumers want more ethically produced food.

They really don’t want to hear the truth about the products they buy, and they don’t want to be told that these happy chicken labels are designed specifically to exploit them by playing upon their desire to be ethical. The reality of commercial ‘free range’ chickens is very, very ugly, and all the more so when you consider how deceptively it’s marketed. Accuracy in labeling would confront consumers with what’s really going on, and might drive more active agitation for better conditions. It might also lead to a radical rise in business for small local farms who are actually producing chickens in an environment that is true to the spirit of the free range ethic, instead of just the letter of the law.

Consumers need to know what they are eating, and the information is out there, but it requires getting aggressive and taking charge with information seeking. Industrial farms aren’t going to provide material that would harm their reputations, and small farms don’t have the budgets and the reach to inform people about what conditions for ‘free range’ chickens really look like. It’s up to consumers to hunt, and it doesn’t take much googling to crack open the real story behind the friendly product labeling. The question is: How many consumers are both able and willing to do that?

Research requires a knowledge of research media, the ability to evaluate sources, the skill to know which keywords to use. This level of literacy is not available to everyone, and people lacking research skills may end up with false or misleading information; search for ‘free range chickens,’ for example, and you get a lot of results from commercial farms assuring you that their chickens are totally happy. People with the skills might not have the will to use them, because facing the conditions behind the contents of your plate can be a frightening thing for people who don’t like finding out that their attempts to do the right thing may not have made an appreciable difference.