What do you think of when someone says “free range”? If you’re like most people, you imagine cows and chickens frolicking among fields, chewing cud straight out of the earth or pecking the ground for a worm who was unfortunate enough to wake up early that morning. There are flowers blooming, green grass growing, and sunshine warming the earth.
This is what many companies would want you to think, at least in the case of all animals but chickens. Even then, we’re not talking about their eggs. The term “free range” is actually completely unregulated for eggs, beef, or any food except for live poultry. Rather, it’s a marketing scheme with no standard definition and no government agency regulating or even overseeing it. Do you want to know what “free range” means? For each individual farmer or company that produced the food you ask, you’ll likely get a different response.
Even for live chickens, the definition is incredibly loose. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates “free range” poultry, their rules are a far cry from the happy scene above. As Eco-Labels.org puts it, “The government only requires that outdoor access be made available for “an undetermined period each day.” That means the door to the coop or stall could be opened for five minutes a day and, if the animal(s) did not see the door open or chose not to leave — even every day — it could still qualify as “free range.”"
And it’s true. Even the USDA considers five minutes of open-air access adequate for use of the “free range” label: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” There are no requirements for the amount, duration, or quality of outdoor access, so the above example? Perfectly acceptable.
Buying free-range is still better than buying conventionally-raised anything, though; our eggs typically come from caged hens who cannot spread their wings and who are routinely debeaked, and their cages usually afford less than half a square food of space per hen. By contrast, all eggs produced in Switzerland come from cage-free hens, and 82% are free-range.
So when faced with the choice of free-range or conventional eggs at your grocery store, it’s in the animals’ best interests that you choose free-range. However, your choices don’t end there! Consider these:
- Buy your food, including eggs, from farmers markets and from farmers themselves. This way, you can meet the farmers and ask how their animals are raised.
- Ask the food company labeled on your meat and egg cartons how it cares for its animals. Consumers can and do sway companies in one direction or another, so long as they speak up. According to the Law and Contemporary Problems journal published by Duke Law School, “McDonalds — after receiving consumer and activist complaints — in 1999 ordered suppliers to make various changes, including increasing egg-laying hens’ space to 72 inches per bird. Burger King and Wendy’s later followed suit.”
- Cut out these foods from your diet, either as much as possible or entirely. While not a feasible goal for everyone, it really is the best you can do.
In the end, no matter what you buy or what you eat, make sure you know its source, and know what the labels actually mean. Sometimes, they may mean nothing at all.