Is "Free Range" Chicken Really Better?
Many folks are convinced that “Free Range” chicken is better than conventionally-raised chicken – claiming it has a better taste,75% more juiciness, and greater tenderness.
Lets Go To the Farm
We traveled to the farms where our chickens are raised – after all, that’s where great food starts! We serve our chicken with pride, and feed it to our children and grandchildren – it’s our responsibility to know the facts, so we investigated.
Free Ranging or Free Roaming Animals
Free Ranging / Roaming animals roam the range freely to find their food – like an Elk, a bear, and Canada geese. Domestic chickens are totally dependant on their grower and only range freely within their barn – so they do not fit this definition.
FSIS Free Range Labeling Definition
The USDA strictly controls labeling laws for everyone’s protection. To put the words “Free Range” on a package… “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
As part of a strict set of protocols, Tony’s natural chickens are raised in long sheds with a computer-controlled air conditioning system, as well as an automated feeding and watering system. While they have a very spacious shed, chickens are territorial and will spend most of their lives in a few square yards. Cages are not used, and birds are allowed to feed and scratch completely protected from the elements, insects, predators and the stress’s they cause.
Protecting chickens in a shed dramatically lowers the risk of contracting the diseases of wild birds. In addition our chickens receive feed tested free of any chemical residues, water purified on site, and are NEVER given antibiotics or growth stimulants.
This is pretty much the ‘Best Practices’ standard for raising natural chickens today – and used by all of Tony’s family chicken growers.
The Free Range Farm
The “Free Range” chicken farm was almost exactly the same set up, however, there was a small fenced yard on one side, and small doors that could be opened for the chickens for a short time most mornings. I could see immediately that the labeling laws were all met for Free Range labeling – it was easy to demonstrate access to the outdoors - but where were the chickens? They were all safe and cool inside their barn; the doors were only opened for a short time each morning. If the doors were opened just five minutes a day, or even if no chickens wandered out, every one of these chickens could now be labeled “Free Range.”
Why Not Free Range?
We asked the conventional farmer why they didn’t put doors on the side of their building; they could get more money for their chickens! Our farmer-friend chuckled and said, “Our job is to keep these birds safe, happy and hungry – opening the doors ruins all that – it gets the shed hot, lets all sorts of insects in, and invites wild birds and their diseases.” He shook his head… “No, opening the doors is a bad idea, its too hard on the chickens!”
Further steps are taken to avoid disease, anyone entering must wear clean overalls, boot covers and masks – this avoids visitors like us from introducing a virus from something we might have stepped in.
Fact or Myth?
“Free Range” chicken is a misnomer; it has nothing to do with chickens ranging freely, nor do the practices have the potential to improve the quality of a chicken. While high-quality chickens labeled, “Free Range” can be quite good, there is not a potential for them to be any better than high quality chickens raised in a protected environment. The words Free Range or Free Roaming are not a quality factors.
Q) Do “Free Range” chickens taste or perform differently that conventional?
A) No, when the same breed is raised with identical food and living conditions, there is no difference. However, the Free Range birds are more likely to need antibiotics, and will suffer higher mortality rates.
Q) Is it worth paying more for a “Free Range” Chicken?
A) No, “Free Range” is a marketing and labeling term, not a quality factor. Higher costs are due to extra profit and higher mortality rates.
Q) Why do many well-know companies and famous chefs recommend Free Range chicken?
A) Like most of us, they have been misinformed and don’t have time to do the homework. Slick marketing, activists, propagandists and rumors have lead to a lot of misinformation becoming accepted as common knowledge. We’ve just let big business bamboozle us on this one.
Q) Is Free Range Chicken better for us?
A) Free Range Chicken does not, and cannot be healthier for us, nor can it offer greater nutrition than protected chickens.
The USDA’s guideline for Free Range or Free Roaming is too vague to be meaningful – and the Consumers Union Agrees We don’t have a thing against ‘Free Range” chickens; we’ve eaten a number of delicious ones! We consider Free Range a non-factor. There are far more important factors in raising quality poultry such as breed, feed and animal husbandry.
This myth is BUSTED!
- Chef Michaelangelo (mick) Rosacci, Daniel J Rosacci
The Consumer's Union on Free Range Labeling
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, is an independent, nonprofit testing and information organization serving only consumers. They are a comprehensive source for unbiased advice about products and services, personal finance, health and nutrition, and other consumer concerns. Since 1936, our mission has been to test products, inform the public, and protect consumers. Our income is derived solely from the sale of Consumer Reports and our other services, and from noncommercial contributions, grants, and fees.
Consumer's Union Free Range Label Report Card
How meaningful is the label? Not
Is the label verified? No
Is the meaning of the label consistent? No
Are the label standards publicly available? No (1)
Is the organization free from conflict of interest? No (2)
Was the label developed with broad public and industry input? No
1) There are no standards for the free range label.
2) The producer or manufacturer decides whether to use the claim and is not free from its own self-interest.
WHAT THIS GENERAL CLAIM MEANS:
The USDA has defined "free range" or "free roaming" for poultry products but not for eggs. For other products carrying the "free range" label, there is no standard definition for this term.
CONSUMERS UNION FINDINGS
"Free range" is a popular label seen on eggs, chicken and other meat. Many shoppers think it means that the animal has spent a good portion of its life outdoors, grazing, foraging, dusting and running. Yet in reality, in the case of poultry for example, the government only requires that outdoor access be made available for "an undetermined period each day." That means that the door to the coop or stall could be opened for five minutes a day and if the animal(s) did not see the open door or chose not to leave--even everyday--it could still qualify as "free range."
CONSUMERS UNION EVALUATION:
Free range (or free roaming) is a general claim that implies that a meat or poultry product, including eggs, comes from an animal that was raised in the open air or was free to roam. Its use on beef is unregulated and there is no standard definition of this term. Free range is regulated by the USDA for use on poultry only (not eggs) and USDA requires that birds have been given access to the outdoors but for an undetermined period each day. 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. "Free range" claims on eggs are not regulated at all. To learn more about what is meant by this term, consumers must contact the manufacturer.