Thursday, December 20, 2012

Best of 2012: The Definition of "Free Range" or "Free Roaming" Chicken

When food shopping, are you befuddled by the terminology used for chicken and eggs? Don't worry, you're not alone.  This post, from January, should help clear up a little of the confusion.


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."

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