I’m not a vegetarian, but I am an animal lover, and I do care about how livestock and poultry are treated before they end up on my plate. That’s why I’ve become increasingly interested in the notion of free-range chicken and eggs — I envision the chicken I’m eating (or her eggs) whiling away her days in a grassy pastoral with plenty of fresh air and water.
The free-range system was in widespread use from the 1930s to the 1960s, as farmers found that the method allowed them to raise high-quality birds at a reasonable cost and effort. But industrialized farming grew, and farmers turned to more economical and efficient methods of chicken-rearing (to little benefit of the poor birds). Today, free-range chickens make up less than one percent of the billions raised each year for food.
According to the U.S. Department Agriculture, chickens must have access to the outdoors in order to be able to claim they are free-range. Free-range eggs, however, have no legal definition or requirement (in fact, some farmers who claim their eggs are “free-range” only have cages that are slightly larger than average).
And, it turns out, the “free-range” designation isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. There are those who say that my idyllic fantasy of the free-range chicken Valhalla is far from the truth.
Although the birds must have access to the outdoors in order to be deemed free-range, the humane treatment often stops there, say dissenters like PETA, United Poultry Concerns and Compassion of Killing.
These groups charge that the doorways to the outdoor areas are often too small for many of the birds in the often-overcrowded sheds to actually get outside, and that some of the more horrific practices in poultry farming still exist in the free-range world, such as de-beaking and the slaughtering of male chicks as well as hens past their egg-laying prime.
But, in the U.K., where free-range laws are stricter, farms such as Kintaline Mill Farms, for example, are seeing the value in true free-range practices. Their chickens are less crowded, not subjected to cruel practices like de-beaking, pasture areas are moved often to stay fresh and, most importantly, their chickens actually do go outside. They claim that their Black Rock chickens are easy to rear, lay excellent-quality eggs, are healthy, fit and are productive for longer.
I might be idealistic, but I still am clinging to the hope that, just as conventional produce farmers have seen the value in using organic practices on their crops, U.S. chicken farmers will acknowledge that Americans are becoming more aware of their food sources and the idea that there are more humane ways of raising poultry for food.
After all, there are certain advantages to going free-range: the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy recently reported that free-range poultry is more resilient to avian flu because the chickens’ immune systems are often higher than cage-raised birds, due to their constant exposure to low-level pathogens. (Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for salmonella.) And, experts believe that free-range-raised chickens have more flavor and substance, at least according to the farmers at Oaklyn Plantation in South Carolina.
I can vouch for the better flavor — the free-range chicken breasts I recently bought were larger and plumper than most commercial chicken breasts, and cooked up to be moist, tender and flavorful.
The best way to ensure that the chickens you’re eating were free-range in more than just name alone is to patronize environmentally responsible supermarkets like Whole Foods, who have likely carefully chosen their purveyors based on the quality and care with which they raise their livestock, or to seek out farmers — smaller, local farmers that you discover at your neighborhood farmers’ market would be a good starting point — who are conscientious and humane about how they treat the animals in their care.