How Free Is “Free-Range”?

“Just because it says free-range does not mean that it is welfare-friendly.”
—Dr. Charles Olentine, editor of Egg Industry magazine, an industry trade journal(1)

As concern grows over the way the meat, egg, and dairy industries treat the animals we eat, so does the number of animal products labeled “free-range.” What does this mean? Do “free-range” chickens, pigs, turkeys, and cows receive humane treatment? Are they slaughtered in less violent ways? While “free-range” practices may be less inhumane than the horrors animals are forced to endure on conventional factory farms, they are still very far from cruelty-free.

“Free-Range” Eggs

There is no inspection system for companies that label their eggs “free-range.”

The popular myth that “free-range” egg-laying hens enjoy fresh grass, bask in the sunlight, scratch the earth, sit on their nests, and engage in other natural habits is often just that: a myth. In many commercial “free-range” egg farms, hens are crowded inside windowless sheds with little more than a single, narrow exit leading to an enclosure, too small to accommodate all of the birds at once.

Both battery cage and “free-range” egg hatcheries kill all male chicks shortly after birth. Since male chicks cannot lay eggs and are different breeds than those chickens raised for meat, they are of no use to the egg industry. Standard killing methods, even among “free-range” producers, include grinding male chicks alive or throwing them into trash bags and leaving them to suffocate.

Whether kept in sheds or cages, laying hens—who can naturally live more than ten years—are considered “spent” when they are just one or two years old and their productivity wanes. Rather than being retired, “free-range” hens are slaughtered to make room for another shed of birds.

With no federal regulations overseeing the use of animal welfare claims on egg cartons, misleading or exaggerated claims are rampant. Consumers may be deceived by phrases such as “animal-friendly” or “naturally-raised,” which can be found on cartons of eggs from caged hens. Read about COK’s truth in labeling campaign urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require the full disclosure of production methods on eggs cartons sold nationwide.

“Free-Range” Broiler Chickens

Birds raised for meat ("broilers") may be considered "free-range" if they have U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified access to the outdoors. No other criteria-environmental quality, the size of the outdoor area, the number of birds confined in a single shed, or the indoor or outdoor space allotted per animal-are considered in applying the label. As with "free-range" laying hens, many "free-range" broilers live in a facility with only one small opening at the end of a large shed, permitting only a few birds to go outside at any given time.

Even Richard Lobb, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council admits, "Even in a free-range type of style of production, you're basically going to find most of them inside the grow out facility."(2)

According to The Washington Post Magazine, in the case of birds, the term "free-range" "doesn't really tell you anything about the [animal's] quality of life, nor does it even assure that the animal actually goes outdoors."(3)

Aside from the birds' actual living conditions, there is no prohibition in "free-range" poultry farming against using breeds of chickens and turkeys who have been selectively bred for fast growth and high feed conversion.

In the 1950s, it took 84 days to raise a five-pound chicken. Due to selective breeding and growth-promoting drugs, it now takes only 45 days.(4) Such fast growth causes chickens to suffer from a number of chronic health problems, including leg disorders and heart disease.(5) According to one study, 90 percent of broilers had detectable leg problems, while 26 percent suffered chronic pain as a result of bone disease.(6) Two researchers in The Veterinary Record report, "We consider that birds might have been bred to grow so fast that they are on the verge of structural collapse."(7) Industry journal Feedstuffs reports, "[B]roilers now grow so rapidly that the heart and lungs are not developed well enough to support the remainder of the body, resulting in congestive heart failure and tremendous death losses."(8)

Whether labeled "free-range" or not, if the birds used by agribusiness are the standard "broiler" chicken of today, buying these products involves an enormous amount of animal suffering.

And, as with factory-farmed birds raised for their meat, "free-range" chickens and turkeys may undergo the same grueling and sometimes fatal transport to slaughterhouses when reaching market weight. Workers gather these birds up to four at a time, carrying them upside down by their legs before throwing them into crates on multi-tiered trucks without protection from the heat or cold and without access to food or water. "Free-range" birds end up at the same slaughterhouses as factory-farmed birds, where they are hung upside down, have their throats slit, and bleed to death, often while still fully conscious.

“Free-Range” Cows, Sheep, and Pigs

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "free-range" beef, pork, and other non-poultry products are loosely defined as coming from animals who ate grass and lived on a range. No other criteria-such as the size of the range or the amount of space given to each animal-are required before beef, lamb, and pork can be called "free-range." "Free-range" and "free-roaming" facilities are rarely inspected or verified to be in compliance with these two criteria. The USDA relies "upon producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims."(9)

Even when "free-range" cows, sheep, and pigs are allowed to live outdoors, they are still subjected to excruciating mutilations without painkiller or analgesic, such as castration, branding, dehorning, tail-docking, and tooth-grinding. Once they are fattened to market weight, they are trucked to slaughterhouses. They are denied food, water, and adequate protection from extreme temperatures once in the vehicles, and many die during the trip. These cows, sheep, and pigs are still slaughtered in the same violent ways as factory-farmed animals: They are pushed through narrow chutes, hung upside down on conveyor belts, and have their throats slit; some are dismembered while still fully conscious.

Is a Truly Free-Range World Possible?

The U.S. animal agribusiness industry currently confines and slaughters more than ten billion land animals each year, the overwhelming majority of whom live intensively confined on factory farms where many cannot even turn around or fully stretch their limbs. Would it be possible to raise ten billion animals without intensive confinement? Probably not.

If intensive confinement operations were banned, it's highly unlikely producers could supply an entire nation of 300 million meat-, egg-, and dairy consumers with enough animal products to sustain the typical American diet. So, without even considering the ethical problems inherent in raising and slaughtering animals for food, from a practical perspective, completely humane farming and slaughtering methods aren't possible.

The Bottom Line

Granted, living in cramped conditions is better than living in even more cramped conditions. Laying hens who have 67 square inches of space per bird likely suffer less than those who have only 50, and giving even 10 out of 10,000 turkeys access to sunlight and the outdoors is better than denying all of them such basic needs. But, clearly, commercial "free-range" farming is not the answer to ending animal abuse.

Doing the Right Thing

The animals killed so we can have chicken breasts, milk, and omelets feel pain and experience joy just like the dogs and cats we pamper. And, like dogs and cats, they want to live free from torture and suffering. By choosing vegetarian foods, we can improve their lives and our own. Indeed, eating meat, eggs, and dairy products is not necessary for our survival and. In fact, even the country's leading nutrition organization, the American Dietetic Association, states that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."(10)

Since we have no need for meat, eggs, and dairy products, why support animal cruelty by purchasing those products? Becoming vegetarian, rather than looking for less inhumane animal products, is the most ethical decision to make.


  1. Olentine, Charles. "Welfare and the Egg Industry: The Best Defense Is an Offense," Egg Industry, October 2002, p. 24.
  2. Quoted from interview with CNN news piece which aired on July 25, 2004. Transcript available at
  3. Perl, Peter. "The Truth About Turkeys," The Washington Post Magazine, November 5, 1995.
  4. Duncan IJH, "Welfare Problems of Meat-Type Chickens," Farmed Animal Well-Being Conference at the University of California-Davis, June 28-29, 2001; personal correspondence with Stephen Pretanik, director of Science and Technology, National Chicken Council, Washington, D.C., January 14, 2004.
  5. Leeson S, Diaz G, and Summers JD, Poultry Metabolic Disorders and Mycotoxins (Guelph, Canada: University Books, 1995); Julian RJ, "Rapid Growth Problems: Ascites and Skeletal Deformities in Broilers," Poultry Science 77 (1998): 1773-80.
  6. Kestin SC, Knowles TG, Tinch AE, and Gregory NG, "Prevalence of Leg Weakness in Broiler Chickens and Its Relationship with Genotype," The Veterinary Record 131 (1992): 190-4.
  7. Wise D and Jennings A, "Dyschondroplasia in Domestic Poultry," The Veterinary Record 91 (1972): 285-6.
  8. Martin D, "Researcher Studying Growth-Induced Diseases in Broilers," Feedstuffs, May 26, 1997.
  9. Donovan, Michael E. Official U.S. Department of Agriculture/Food Safety and Inspection Service letter, April 11, 1996.
  10. "Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2003, volume 103, pp. 748-765. Available at

Source : Compassion Over Killing

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