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What about free-range farms?

2013 update: On its website, the high-end chicken company Bell & Evans paints a picture of the coddled chicken. Its chickens are "humanely raised" in a "minimal stress" environment. However, undercover video from Compassion Over Killing shows workers at their Pennsylvania plant throwing live chicks into meat grinders. The company sells its "humane" and "organic" chicken to restaurants and leading grocers, such as Whole Foods and Wegmans.

“Free-range chickens conjure up in some consumers’ minds pictures of contented fowl strolling around the barnyard, but the truth is, all a chicken grower needs to do is give the birds some access to the outdoors whether the chickens decide to take a gambol or stay inside with hundreds or thousands of other birds, under government rules growers are free to label them free-range.

“As all free-range animals are still viewed as objects to be killed for food, they are subject to abusive handling, transport, and slaughter [see, for example, this footage of slaughter]. Free-range animals, like all animals used for their milk and eggs, are still slaughtered at a fraction of their normal life expectancy.”

Associated Press, 3/11/98

A growing number of people are looking to free-range products as an alternative to factory-farmed animal products. Poultry meat may be labeled “free-range” if the birds were provided an opportunity to access the outdoors. No other requirements – such as the stocking density, the amount of time spent outdoors, or the quality and size of the outdoor area – are specified by the USDA.1 As a result, free-range conditions may amount to tens of thousands of birds crowded inside a shed with a single exit leading to a muddy strip, saturated with droppings.

Turkey poults on a free-range farm
Turkey poults on a free-range farm; click for larger image (courtesy of EBAA).

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the term ‘free range’ or ‘free roaming’ can be used to describe poultry that ‘has been allowed access to the outside.’ Such a loose definition, without a government standard, leaves lots of room for interpretation. As long as a bird has outdoor access, it can live in a warehouse-style shed with 20,000 other birds and still be labeled ‘free range.’”

The Washington Post,Bird Words: Translating the Label,” 11/15/06

The free-range label applies only to birds raised for meat, not eggs. There is a cage-free label for eggs; but it is not regulated by the USDA, nor does it guarantee that the hens were provided access to the outdoors. Neither label requires third-party certification. Even for USDA Organic, the most extensively regulated label, minimum levels of outdoor access have not been set and specific rules do not apply to stocking density or flock size.1

“Steve Mahrt, self-proclaimed ‘head chicken farmer’ and owner of Petaluma Farms, has been selling fertile, cage-free and organic eggs to West Coast consumers for 20 years.… ‘We’re the original, free-ranging chicken people,’ says Mahrt, a former California Egg Commission chairman.”

The Oakland Tribune,How one egg farmer has gone cage-free for 20 years,” 5/28/03

Chickens who lay cage-free eggs
Above: Mahrt’s farm; click each for larger image (courtesy of Viva! USA and Farm Sanctuary).
Free-range turkey poult who has been debeaked
Turkeys raised on free-range farms are often subjected to debeaking and toe trimming; click for larger image (courtesy of EBAA).

Virtually all commercial egg farms, including free-range and organic, use hatcheries that kill the male chicks at birth, and typically debeak the females.2 Although hens can live more than 10 years, they’re slaughtered after 1 to 2 years.2

Free-range, cage-free, and organic farms vary greatly, and while they may be an improvement over conventional factory farms, they are by no means free of suffering. Visiting the farms and slaughterhouses is the only way to know how the animals are being raised and killed before the meat hits your plate.

See also: “Trouble in the henhouse: The scam of organic eggs”; brief guides to Meat and Dairy Labels and Egg Carton Labels from the Humane Society of the United States; Ezra Klein’s article on USDA ’s 2009 guidelines for the “naturally raised” marketing claim; and more photos that show organic does not equal “happy.”



  1. USDA ERS, Outlook Report No. LDP-M-150-01, December 2006.
  2. UEP, Animal Husbandry Guidelines 2010 Edition.