Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Definition of "Free Range" or "Free Roaming" Chicken

I was cooking with a student earlier this week and as we started sautéing organic chicken thighs, she asked, "Is 'free range' better than 'organic'?"

A 20-minute conversation about the intricacies of poultry farming ensued, but here are the basics:

The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) definition of "free range" or "free roaming," which only applies to poultry, is "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."

There is absolutely no further definition of what "access" means (it can be a door the size of one chicken in the corner of a factory farm's immense chicken barn) or what "outside" means (it can be a gravel or concrete space the size of my kitchen sink).

In addition, "free range" or "free roaming" does not tell us anything about the chicken's feed (probably genetically modified corn and soy sprayed with tons of pesticides) or if antibiotics have been administered to the chickens.

Sure, some farmers labeling their chickens "free range" provide ample grassy space and skip the antibiotics, but I'm usually wary of the "free range" label.

That being said, "organic" chickens may not be spending much time hanging out on idyllic verdant pastures either. Just like chickens labeled "free range," only "access to the outdoors" is required, with no further specifics offered. However, know that USDA organic regulations require that organic chicken cannot be administered antibiotics and its feed must be free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides.

Personally, I buy organic chicken, as the avoidance of antibiotics, GMOs and pesticides is of utmost importance to me. If your budget doesn't allow for organic chicken, make sure to buy chicken free of antibiotics, which is much more vital than any possible "access to the outside."


It Is Our Normal said...

Raising and slaughtering your own is a great way to know for sure also.

Chef Rob said...

That's probably the best, but it may not be feasible for many people these days.

Matt said...

"Pastured" generally means what you want. I suspect supermarket "organic" is better than supermarket "free range", but when my budget allows me to get a superior chicken, I'll go for a farmer's market chicken that I know spent its life eating bugs.

Chef Rob said...


Agreed on the farmers' market chicken AND the bugs!


It Is Our Normal said...

True, it isn't feasible for most people to raise their own but there are people out there that do and they probably would trade or sell their product. We get our beef from a farmer down the road. We got our pork from a guy my husband works with. You can meet farmers at any farmers market. Get a freezer and stock up. Better yet, share a freezer with your neighbor.