Are Free-Range Eggs and Humane Meat the Answer?
As the inhumane conditions on “factory farms” are increasingly publicized, a growing number of people prefer to purchase products that are “cage-free,” “free range,” “organic,” or “humane.” While it is tempting to think that we can prevent suffering by buying items sporting these and other friendly-sounding labels, further investigation reveals that these terms are little more than advertising buzzwords providing few improvements to animal welfare and food safety. Unfortunately, even the minimal requirements behind these certifications are rarely enforced, as discovered by undercover investigations and rescues.
Despite labels such as “free range” or “humanely raised,” chicks who will ultimately be raised for eggs or meat begin life in the same hatcheries as do chicks headed for conventional “factory farms.” Like conventionally raised chickens, they never meet their mothers. Chicks destined to lay “cage-free” eggs are sorted by sex, and the males are discarded, no more useful to a “free range” farmer than to a conventional one. The females are almost always debeaked, as are their caged counterparts. After a year or two of egg production, the now “spent” hens are either trucked to slaughter or disposed of, no matter what type of facility they may have come from.
In “organic,” “free range,” or “humane” meat production, chickens—all still bred to grow at an unnatural rate—continue to be slaughtered before they reach adulthood. They are generally slaughtered and processed at the same facilities as conventional chickens, under the same conditions. And no matter how they’re raised, all chickens are excluded from federal welfare laws regarding breeding, rearing, transportation, and slaughter.
Learn more about the meanings of common labels:
American Humane Certified: Although the American Humane Association certifies this label, certified facilities may confine layer hens in “enriched” cages that allow each bird less than 1 square foot of space. Maceration of unwanted male chicks is explicitly allowed, and debeaking is also permitted. “Broilers” are allowed 1 square foot of space per bird.
Cage Free: “Cage-Free” chickens are not housed in cages. This term is only relevant for egg-laying hens; chickens raised for meat are rarely caged, and use of this term in regards to their meat is a misleading marketing strategy. Hens laying “cage-free” eggs may be crowded in windowless warehouses without outdoor access. They are generally debeaked and will be slaughtered when their egg production wanes at a year or two of age.
Certified Humane: “Broiler” chickens are housed uncaged inside barns or warehouses but there is no requirement for outdoor access, and birds may have less than a square foot of space each. Layer hens, also uncaged, must have access to perches, nest boxes, and space to dustbathe, although outdoor access is still not a requirement. They are required at least 1 square foot per hen. Forced molting, appliances such as contact lenses and blinders intended to discourage cannibalism, and severe debeaking are prohibited, although chicks’ beaks can be seared if there is concern regarding cannibalism or feather picking. Male chicks of the layer breeds are still killed shortly after hatching.
Certified Organic: Chickens must be fed an organic diet free of animal byproducts and antibiotics. They must be uncaged, with “access to the outdoors;” this terminology has the same limits as does the term “free-range.” Debeaking is common.
Free-Range or Free-Roaming: According to the USDA, poultry “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside” in order to qualify as “free-range.” While this may sound straightforward and evoke images of chickens frolicking in nature, “access to the outside” does not specify the amount or quality of outside space, the ease of this access, or the length of time that access is available. A shed containing tens of thousands of chickens with a one small door at one end that opens to a fenced-in strip of concrete or mud can be considered “free-range.” Often, chickens in these settings are too tightly crowded and weak to make it to the door; they may also view the outdoor area as alien and frightening, and thus avoid venturing outside.
The term “free-range” has no requirements regarding space per bird, number of birds, or other environmental conditions. Debeaking may be practiced and birds are slaughtered under the same conditions as all other poultry.
Humanely Raised: This is a label certified by the National Chicken Council, a private industry group, referring to “broiler” chickens. Chickens marketed as “Humanely Raised” are raised in confinement (0.8 square foot required per bird), with no access to the outdoors. These birds, like all “broilers,” are bred and fed for rapid growth, and are slaughtered at approximately six weeks of age.
Process Verified: The USDA’s Process Verified Program is a segment of the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The program’s audits merely insure that companies’ practices are in line with the companies’ own standards. Thus, each poultry producer’s “humane” treatment need only meet their own definition of “humane” (there is no federal definition of the term). This can include intensive overcrowding and confinement, filthy conditions, debeaking, and any other conventional practices. Farms have even been cited for food safety violations by the FDA, while passing the Process Verified Program’s audits under the same conditions.
United Egg Producer Certified: United Egg Producers encourages use of battery cages, although it does provide standards for “cage-free” operations. In either case, hens are kept crowded in intensive confinement, without room to perform natural behaviors. Space requirements are a mere 67 square inches per bird – less than half a square foot. UEP prohibited forced molting in 2006, following a 13-year campaign by United Poultry Concerns, but does allow debeaking.