What is free range chicken?
The idea may spark images of chickens running around in the sunshine, living their days in happiness before becoming poultry. But what does free range really mean? Is it the same as organic?
We’ll break it down for you:
What Is Free Range Chicken?
In the United States, the term “free range” is overseen by the USDA, so you might think that there’s a long list of requirements that farmers have to meet before their chickens are considered free range. On the USDA’s website, though, there’s just one line:
“Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
And that’s it! This might be an improvement from chickens that are completely confined, but it still doesn’t say much about how they’re are actually living. There aren’t clear guidelines on how much outside space the chickens have or how long they’re allowed to be outside.
Other countries differ in the specificity of their regulations. Australian guidelines just require that chickens have “meaningful and regular access to the outdoors,” while the free range chicken farmers in the Philippines must adhere to a comprehensive document of regulations.
Free Range Certifications
Although the governmental requirements about free range can be pretty lax, there are several certification programs that have clear rules about the quality of the chickens’ time outside.
Producers of free range eggs can get additional certifications for having a certain amount of floor space per chicken or a minimum amount of outdoor time per day. Egg cartons from these farmers will say things like “Food Alliance Certified” or “Animal Welfare Approved.”
Free Range vs. Organic
Compared to free range, the term “organic” usually has a few more restrictions, like that the product has to be free of genetic engineering or ionizing radiation. If you’re shopping for chicken and find something labeled “organic,” you’ll know it at least doesn’t come from these conditions.
But that still doesn’t say much about whether the chickens are treated well.
In order to get a good sense of where your meat or eggs come from, you might want to opt for a local poultry farm or small business whose practices you’re generally aware of. They might not have the certification that larger companies do, but you’ll have a better chance of not being misled by vague labels.
Does It Make a Difference in Quality?
It’s hard to say whether the label of “free range” is enough to make a difference in the quality of the meat.
Studies of free range poultry have shown these birds to produce better quality meat and have a more desirable nutritional balance. But it’ll likely make a difference whether the eggs and meat you’re buying come from chickens that are truly free range or that just meet the minimal requirements.
So, what is free range chicken? The answer depends on how vague the guidelines are that govern the farming practice. It could mean anything from a chicken given a little bit of sunlight each day to a chicken that’s truly allowed to roam free.
Stay informed of the labels you see every day and determine for yourself whether the price is worth it. For more on language and food, check out our other articles on this blog!