In an age when grocery store shelves and refrigerated cases are filled with food from all across the world there is a growing concern for where and how the food was produced. Terms like free-range chickens, pasture-raised chickens, and cage free chickens all describe how a bird was raised. However, what the terms actually mean can be confusing.
The majority of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in battery cages. On average, as many as 100,000 birds per house are each confined to only 67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life. Unable even to spread their wings, caged laying hens are among the most intensively confined animals in agribusiness.
Because of public opposition to battery cage confinement, many egg producers are switching to cage-free systems. While this does allow the birds to move and stretch, most large scale farmers stuff as many birds (eggs and meat) as possible into a poultry house. Which, due to poor indoor air quality, cannibalism and higher mortality rates, isn’t really any better. But, cage-free operations cost 36% more to operate, a cost that’s passed on to you, the consumer.
Free range indicates the animal who laid the eggs or provided the meat was given access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, many commercial chicken farmers interpret “access” to mean a small pop hole for the bird to stick its head outside or they pack the birds into a confined space with a tiny outdoor run to get sunlight for part of the day.
As you can understand, this is different from the “free-range chickens” image many people have in their head when they hear or read those words. Don’t be tricked into thinking a “free-range” animal has lived its entire life frolicking in a pasture, as unfortunately this is not usually the case in commercial farming.
Pasture-raised poultry are free-range chickens that forage managed pasture for a significant part of their diet. Pasture raised operations are usually small farms with 2000 or less birds that are fenced or otherwise limited to a portion of a pasture that is rotated regularly and are only confined at night for predator protection.
Before Big Ag
Early poultry production consisted of many households having backyard flocks of dual-purpose chickens. These chickens supplied eggs and an occasional chicken for Sunday or holiday dinner. Enterprising housewives and children sold surplus eggs and meat for pocket-money.
Once vitamin D and its effect on a bird’s development and egg-laying, the commercial chicken/egg industry was born and chicken raising moved indoors. Confined chickens are cheaper because every aspect of their lives controlled for maximum efficiency (feed conversion/egg production/weight gain) and profit.
Pastured poultry is rising in popularity again as conscious consumers look for more natural and humane sources of meat and eggs. Because they are not as efficient to raise as factory-raised flocks, pastured birds and the meat or eggs they provide are often more expensive.
Do not be duped by slick advertising. Ask the questions, do the research, know the company or farmer from whom you get your meat/eggs. Then make an informed decision to support (with your food dollars) what is important to you as the consumer. Below is a info graphic that simplifies all the terms you may come across and I’ve put a link in the caption for further reading on the various egg companies out there.