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The facts on free-range: What does it really mean?

In the quest to go organic, many consumers want to purchase poultry or beef with the label “free-range.” Does that mean the chickens and cows are allowed to run free and nibble on organic corn and grass all day? It’s a nice vision. But here we examine what the claim “free-range” really means.


According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), free-range or free-roaming means that “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” This leaves it largely up to the individual farmers as far as how much (or little) time the chickens actually spend outside and it certainly does not give them “free range” by any means.While this is certainly better than the conventional mills which house chickens in wire cages, the term is slightly misleading. Further adding to the confusion are other terms, such as free-run, which means the birds are not subjected to cages. Pastured means the birds are housed outside in fenced “managed” pastures. They are maintained by rotating the animals so the forage does not become overgrazed. This term can apply to chickens, hogs and sheep. If they are not given supplemental feed, they can be labeled grass-fed, but the term generally refers to cattle or milk cows.On the Consumer Reports Greener Choices Eco-labels Center web site, the report card for “free-range” products was pretty negative. The report pointed out that the label is virtually meaningless, since it is inconsistent, not verified and also has not been made publicly available.The reports also says that while USDA requirements state the birds need to have been given access to the outdoors each day, the time allotment is undetermined. The report continues: “USDA considers five minutes of open-air access each day to be adequate for it to approve use of the free-range claim on a poultry product.”

Truly free?

To make matters worse, free-range claims on eggs are not at all regulated.Your best bet is to select organic eggs, since you can rest assured that chickens that are laying these eggs are being treated humanely. Organic chickens are also not forced into mass egg production by way of continual lighting and are only fed organic grains.There are countless other labels out there such as natural, certified humane, hormone-free, fresh… and the list goes on. Do your research on what each means and determine what is most important to you when it comes to how the animals were treated and what you want going into your body.Ultimately it is your choice, but at least you can know exactly what you’re eating.

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