How Free Is “Free-Range”?
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Compassion Over Killing
"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 animal agribusiness treats the animals we eat, so does the number of animal products labeled “free-range” or carrying certifications claiming humane treatment. What do these labels mean? Do “free-range” or “animal care certified” chickens, pigs, turkeys, and cows receive less inhumane treatment? Are they slaughtered in less violent ways? Should we opt for these meats, cheeses, eggs, and milk?
While producers are hoping these labels will put to rest consumers’ concerns about the mistreatment of farmed animals, more often than not, “free-range” and “animal care certified” labels make little difference for the animals themselves.
No laws or governmental standards regulate the use of terms like “free-range” and “free-roaming” on egg cartons.
Old MacDonald’s Farm: The Myth Shattered
The popular myth that “free-range” laying hens enjoy fresh grass, sunlight, scratch the earth, sit on their nests, and engage in other natural habits couldn’t be further from the truth. In most commercial “free-range” egg farms, hens are kept inside windowless sheds at all times, packed nearly wing to wing. And, while “free-range” laying hens are given more space than those kept in battery cages (on average 1 to 2 square feet as opposed to 50 square inches), most of these birds are never able to travel outside their sheds during their entire lives. Even those facilities boasting outdoor access rarely offer more than a single, narrow exit leading to an enclosure, too small to accommodate more than a few birds at once.
The Death Toll
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 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 while still alive, leaving them to suffocate.
Inside commercial “free-range” egg farms, mortality rates are even higher than those in battery cage facilities, as uncaged birds must live in their own excrement, spending their lives among filth and disease. In contrast, caged hens are suspended over vast manure pits.
Whether kept in sheds or cages, laying hens are considered “spent” when they are just one or two years old. (Chickens can naturally live more than ten years.) As their egg production wanes, rather than being retired, “free range” hens are slaughtered to make room for another shedful of birds.
Food Industry Egg Certification Programs
Currently, hens in battery cages are given an average of 50 square inches of space per bird in which they must sleep, eat, defecate, and lay eggs. This living space—less than half the size of a single sheet of paper—is far from adequate; the industry publication Poultry Digest reports that an average laying hen needs 290 square inches merely to flap her wings.(2)
As a result of the increasing opposition to the cruelties suffered by egg-laying hens, in 2001 and 2002, three fast-food giants—McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s—required that their egg suppliers immediately provide between 72 and 75 square inches per bird, prohibited forced molting (starving birds to induce a new laying cycle) and discouraged debeaking (searing off parts of chicks’ beaks to minimize the impact of stress-induced aggression).
Shortly thereafter in 2002, the egg industry trade group United Egg Producers (UEP) announced a new voluntary program for UEP member producers. Companies agreeing to abide by the UEP’s new welfare guidelines will be able to label their products “Animal Care Certified.”
However, unlike the fast-food reforms, the UEP guidelines mandate only 67 square inches per bird, and, instead of immediate implementation, there is a six-year phase-in period. Moreover, the UEP guidelines neither prohibit forced molting nor discourage debeaking.
While the UEP guidelines fall short of even the minimal fast-food guidelines, none of the reforms ensures the welfare of egg-laying hens. No matter which company is using their eggs, hens in battery cages will never see sunlight, touch the earth, or even flap their wings. They will still live suspended above manure pits, sometimes dying in their cages, forcing other hens to eat and sleep on top of their corpses.
Chickens and turkeys raised for their meat (“broilers”) may be sold as “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 space allotted per animal—are considered in applying the label. As with “free-range” laying hens, many “free-range” broilers must live in a facility with only one small opening at the end of a large shed, letting only a few birds outside at any given time.
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)
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 other 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” meat is 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.”(4)
Even when “free-range” cows, sheep, and pigs are allowed to live outdoors, they are still subjected to excruciating mutilations without painkiller, such as castration, branding, dehorning, tail-docking, and tooth-grinding. Once they are fattened, 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. For those still alive at the journey’s end, the cows, sheep, and pigs are still slaughtered in the same horrific ways as factory farmed animals: They are pushed along conveyor belts, hung upside down, and have their throats slit; many 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 on factory farms. Would it be possible to raise ten billion animals without intense confinement? Probably not.
If intense confinement operations were banned, it’s highly unlikely producers could feed an entire nation of 280 million meat-, egg-, and dairy consumers. In short, without considering the ethical problems inherent in raising and slaughtering animals for food, from a practical perspective, there is no way to produce animal products for such a large population without cruelty.
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 does this mean “free-range” farming is the answer to ending animal abuse? No.
The animals killed so we can have steak, 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, has been shown again and again in medical research to clog our arteries, raise our cholesterol, and contribute to heart disease, some cancers, and stroke.(5)
Doing the Right Thing
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) “British Scientists Want More Hen Space,” Poultry Digest, May 1990, p. 44.
3) Perl, Peter. “The Truth About Turkeys,” The Washington Post Magazine, November 5, 1995.
4) Donovan, Michael E. Official U.S. Department of Agriculture/Food Safety and Inspection Service letter, April 11, 1996.
5) “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, November 1997, volume 97, issue 11, pp. 1317–21.
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