I want to start off by saying that I do not mean to endorse or oppose any of the brands shown here. I took my camera to a local grocery store, and took photos of labels that I know people have questions about, regardless of the brands.
We’ve all heard about cage free and free range chicken. But does anyone really know what it means?
According to the USDA’s regulations, in order to use the label “cage free,” the entire flock of birds must be able to freely roam in “a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.” It does not give requirements for how big the space must be, or how many birds can be together.
I looked all over the USDA website, and could not easily find a definition for “production cycle.” In different documents, they talk about this in different terms. One document mentions pregnancy through lactation as a production cycle for dairy cattle, and the start/end of fattening for beef cattle. Another document talks about the production cycle for beef cattle being from conception to slaughter. In the case of laying hens, I would consider the production cycle to start at the time she is first capable of laying an egg. For broiler hens (raised for meat production), you might consider the production cycle to start as soon as they are hatched.
This label includes organic and free range. Again, according to the USDA website, free-range applies specifically to poultry, not other types of animals (like cattle). The flock of birds must be provides shelter in a “building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle.” There are no guidelines to what type of outdoor area they have access to – it may be a small dirt lot or a large grassy pasture. There is also no requirement that the birds actually spend any time outdoors, only that they have access to it.
One important thing to think about when you are talking about cage-free or free-range chickens is the term “pecking order.” This term came about from chicken behavior. If a chicken gets sick, once the other birds realize it, they will kill the sick chicken by pecking it to death. This is a normal prey response – they are killing off the weak members of their flock so they don’t attract predators. They may also perform this behavior to establish dominance in a group of chickens. When you have a large group of chickens together in a room or an outdoor enclosure, you are more likely to have injuries or illnesses that may result in this type of normal chicken behavior than when chickens are kept in smaller groups in cages. It all depends on the environment and the management.
This label gets me every time. It is not regulated by the USDA. It used to be a common practice to feed animal by-products to animals as a protein source. When mad cow disease was discovered, and we realized that it was transmitted by eating nervous tissue (brain and spinal cord) from animals that already had the disease, this practice was largely eliminated.
Any ruminant (cattle, sheep, and goats) is an herbivore, meaning that left to its own devices will only eat plants. We did change their natural eating habits in confinement by feeding animal by-products as a protein source, but as I mentioned, we’ve gotten away from that practice in order to protect animal and human health.
Chickens are not herbivores. In their own chicken world, they are omnivores, which means that they will eat plants and animals. For chickens, this means they eat bugs and worms. A free range chicken, if it really has substantial access to the outdoors, will spend time scratching in the dirt and finding bugs to eat. So while the farmers may only feed the chicken a vegetarian diet, a free range chicken is probably falling off the vegetarian wagon every time it goes outside.
Do you buy cage-free or free-range chicken or eggs? Why or why not? What about the vegetarian-fed label? I can see how this would have appeal to vegetarians, but they aren’t the ones eating the chicken and beef…