Conjured up in the minds of many consumers when the term "Free-Range" is used in conjunction with chickens is a bucolic vision of lush pastures and big beautiful birds running freely, folicing, eating bugs and grass and singing beautiful chicken songs of love and happiness. Well I'm here to pop that little thought bubble over your head and explain just what the ugly truth is!
Let's start with theUSDA Food Safety and Inspection Service definition of requirements for Free-Range Chicken (meat) certification. Must "have access to OUTSIDE". Well, that's real explicit... NOT! And let me tell you, big businesses will exploit every opportunity to take advantage of vagueness in the law. Outside could mean any of the following things: dirt, gravel, concrete, and the fact of the matter is that these are usually the options used by commercial poultry producers! As a matter of fact there is NO requirement for access to pasture. As far as eggs go, there is no legal Free-Range definition in the US, no common standard. There is no definition for confinement size for meat or egg Free-Range products. Some commercial producers are using the Free-Range marketing tool because their cages are 2-3" larger than average sized cages - some are even justifying it's use because their chicken house has a window in it. That's because the USDA gives NO criteria for size of range. I'm sure you all remember the cute news stories around Thanksgiving where the local news reporter is at the local turkey farm. Remember those pictures of a large barn PACKED with turkeys? Guess what... they can be marketed as Free-Range simply because they are not kept in cages. Still kept for the whole of their lives packed into poultry houses. In fact the USDA has left the fox to guard the hen house by specifically stating that they rely on the PRODUCER to support accuracy for their claims (in whatever manner the PRODUCER sees fit).
The technical term used for commercial poultry operations that pack their poultry into houses without the use of cages is "high density floor confinement". Guess what, all of the following terms can and are being used by the industry for these situations: "Cage-Free", "Free-Running", "Free-Roaming", and "Naturally Nested". Think back to that vision you had in your head about what these terms meant.
In all fairness the USDA Agriculture Marketing Services proposed (emphasis on "proposed" - note that I've not seen it become a requirement) in 2002 for the terms "Free-Range", "Free-Roaming" and "Pasture Raised" to explicity mean livestock that have had continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life cycle (with the exception of swine who must have it for 80% of their life cycle). Unfortunately the egg industry spends millions each year to fund the American Egg Board to promote their own interests. Obviously the proposed definitions are not in their own interest. We all know about how powerful well funded lobbyist are.
Take, for instance, the case of Proposition 2 ballot inititive that came up in 2007 in California to stop the most inhumane treatment of factory farmed animals. Prop 2 proposed a new state statute that prohibits the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. There is an organization you have probably heard of called the American Egg Board (AEB). They are the owners of "The Incredible Edible Egg" campaign. This is their mission as stated on their web-site:
The American Egg Board (AEB) is the U.S. egg producer's link to consumers in communicating th value of the incredible egg. Our mission is to increase demand for egg and egg products on behalf of U.S. egg producers.
AEB is funded by a national legislative checkoff on all egg production from companies with more than 75,000 layers. The board is appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and consists of 18 members and 18 alternates from all regions of the country who are egg producers nominated by certified state and regional organizations representing egg producers.
The USDA is charged by law to oversee the AEB and AEB is prohibited by law from undertaking any activity designed to influence voters, legislatures or ballot inititives. In 2008 the Humane Society of the US uncovered documents showing that the AEB was diverting $3 million of federally provided funds to stop the California Anti-Cruelty Ballot Inititive (Prop 2) in 2007. The claims were backed up by recovered emails between AEB officers and USDA staff showing that the AEB intended to spend these funds to stop Prop 2 from passing and that the USDA knew about the activity and did nothing to stop it. Lucily Prop 2 had broad voter support and the inititive won with more votes than any other citizen ititive in California History.
Specifically taking on the case of eggs, Mother Earth News in 2007 conducted an egg study in which they had an independant accredited lab in Oregon test eggs from 14 small true free-ranging, pastured flocks across the US and compare the nutritional data to that provided by the USDA data on commercial flocks. The results were quite striking:
Pastured eggs contained on average
1/3 less cholesterol
1/4 less saturated fats
2/3 more Vitamin A
2 times more Omega-3 Fatty Acids
3 times more Vitamin E
7 times more beta carotene
You can read more about the study an Mother Earth News' results here: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/2007-10-01/Tests-Reveal-Healthier-Eggs.aspx?page=4
Now here is where you have to "follow the money" to find out why these results have not made front page news.
Start with the factory farms (those with more than 75,000 layers) - they give the AEB more than $20 million each year to fund AEB research to convince the public that their eggs are no different than pastured raised. And guess what - the AEB states that "nutrient content of eggs is not affected by whether hens are raised Free-Range or in floor or cages."