For those guided by a moral compass, the meat aisle has become tricky to navigate. As consumers have become more ethically aware than ever, there have been calls for greater responsibility and transparency in our food. The result has been a slew of new foggy legislation and terminology, with phrases like “organic” and “free range” introduced into the shopper’s everyday lexicon. As a consequence, we all feel better about what we’re eating, without fully understanding why.
Unfortunately for guilty carnivores everywhere, the promise of a happy free range chicken is something of an illusion. The phrase “free range” has become something of a comforter. But despite being an ever-present label in stores all over the world, our understanding of what free range means needs to be reconciled with reality.
The definition of free range farming is extremely murky. As a rule, for a product to be labelled “free range”, the animal has to have access to an outside area for at least a portion of the day, although there are no fixed rules about what this period of time has to be. Some countries stipulate minimum requirements on housing space for farm animals, while others have no such provisions. Wherever you are, acceptable conditions and practices shift constantly, making it incredibly difficult for a consumer to know exactly what they are paying for.
When it comes to individual products, the issue becomes even less clear. What may be a specific requirement in one country is likely to be totally unnecessary in another, throwing more mud in the faces of puzzled shoppers. Take poultry, for example. In the UK, a free range chicken must be housed in a defined space (with no more than 13 birds per square metre), be 56 days old before it is slaughtered and have continuous daytime access to open-air runs for at least half its lifetime. In America, on the other hand, the only stipulation is that the bird be allowed access to the outside, meaning that the definition of free range is essentially left up to individual farmers.
It’s not just animals raised for slaughter that find themselves with a legally dubious status. Free range egg-laying hens, for instance, operate under an entirely separate definition from their broiling counterparts, which once again changes wherever you are in the world. Even more confusingly, free range-labelled dairy products like milk and cheese are currently being sold despite there being little to no regulation at all in that industry. All this means that, as a way of telling how ethically an animal has been reared, the term “free-range” is essentially pretty useless.
Even beyond the legal chaos of the term itself, there are legitimate questions over how ethical many of our current free range stipulations actually are. As discussed, in the UK, there must be no more than 13 birds per square metre for them to be considered free range. Yet this is a considerable number of birds in a relatively small space. Furthermore, the practice of beak burning is often carried out to prevent hens from pecking at each other in confined conditions. That ethically ambiguous techniques like this continue to be carried out even on “free range” farms makes it doubly difficult to say with any certainty what the label truly represents.
Despite the obvious confusion within the industry, most people have a very clear idea about what a product marked “free range” means. Pictures of happy chickens nestling on egg cartons and cartoon cattle smiling stupidly from packs of mince help to reassure us as consumers that we have nothing to feel guilty about. Though these depictions are not outright lies, they oversimplify the complex issues that surround free range produce. As easy and tempting as it is to say that "all free range is good", it remains a muddled marketplace where conflicting and confusing definitions are able to coexist simultaneously.
Unfortunately, the only way to arm ourselves with the facts about free range farming is to learn more about what the term means in our own specific area. As we've seen, the discrepancy in definitions all over the world means that there are few hard and fast rules that we can live by when buying free range produce. If animal welfare is a high priority for you, the only thing to do is to delve deeper. It might take extra effort, but it's the only way to really know exactly what it is you're getting.