Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman
Free range products often give shoppers a degree of reassurance.
Unfortunately, the promise of a happy chicken is something of an illusion.
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Despite being an ever-present label, our understanding of what it means is to be reconciled with reality.
So what does free range mean?
Here’s everything you need to know…
The free range label is often misunderstood (Credit: Pexels)
What does free range mean?
The definition of free range farming is extremely murky.
For a product to have that label, the animal has to have access to an outside area for at least part of the day.
But 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.
Meanwhile, other nations have no such provisions whatsoever.
Wherever you are, acceptable conditions and practices shift constantly.
Frustratingly, this makes it difficult for a consumer to know exactly what they are paying for.
The issue becomes even less clear when it comes to individual products.
What may be a specific requirement in one country is likely to be totally unnecessary in another.
What does free range mean? (Credit: PA)
What is free range chicken?
In the UK, a free range chicken must be housed in a defined space.
This space means it should be with no more than 13 birds per square metre.
A chicken must also be 56 days old before it is slaughtered.
It should also have continuous daytime access to open-air runs for at least half its lifetime.
But in America, the only stipulation is that the bird be allowed access to the outside.
This means that the definition is essentially left up to individual farmers.
Free range eggs aren’t always as ethical as they seem (Credit: Pexels)
What are free range eggs?
It’s not just animals raised for slaughter that find themselves with a legally dubious status.
Free range egg-laying hens operate under a separate definition from their broiling counterparts.
But once again, these rules change wherever you are in the world.
And it gets even more confusing when it comes to dairy products like milk and cheese.
These products are given that label despite there being little to no regulation at all in that industry.
As a way of telling how ethically an animal has been reared, the term free range is essentially pretty useless.
The free range label can be controversial (Credit: Alamy/Sheryl Watson)
Even beyond the legal chaos of the term itself, there are legitimate questions over how ethical many of our current 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.
Ethically ambiguous techniques like this continue to be carried out, even on free range farms.
Unfortunately, this makes it doubly difficult to say with any certainty what the label truly represents.
There is intense debate around whether free range food is better (Credit: Pexels)
Are free range products better?
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 farming to learn more about what the term means in our own specific area.
The debate around free range and organic continues to rage (Credit: Pexels)
How to shop more ethically
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.
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.