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.


Chickens without Names

By: Sara Hamilton, Former "Free-Range" Farmer Turned Chicken Advocate

It physically, emotionally, and mentally pains me to say that I’ve raised hundreds of sheep, cows, and pigs for production. I’m horrified that I’ve raised thousands of chickens, both layers and broilers. “I’m Sara, and I’m a kind person who loves animals…” That’s how I described myself for probably 20 years. Meanwhile, over a thousand animals at a time were suffering in my backyard and I could not see that how I described myself and how I lived my life were polar opposites. On our farm we considered ourselves kind to our animals, they always had fresh water, organic food, and clean shelters and pens. Our animals were happy, we thought… especially compared to many other farms in our area. I mean, our animals had names, they got belly rubs and treats… of course we loved them. Right?

In the last two years of my profession as a farmer, I went through a very emotionally painful transformation. I was a married animal production farmer, and I became a single vegetarian working as the farm manager at a large farm animal sanctuary. Though this journey has been filled with regret and guilt of the harm I brought to thousands of animals, but it has brought me to a place of peace that I couldn’t have imagined. I owe this in a large part to chickens.

When I was raising broiler chickens, they would be shipped to the farm via the post office. We would order 200 chicks at a time from online and they would arrive in 1 large box with 4 dividers. Usually 1-5 of them would die during their trip, and the rest would go into the coop. The broiler coop was a large shed like structure that had small doors in the back so that they were able to go outside into a fenced area during the day, and locked inside at night to keep them safe from predators. By most standards of raising chickens, they were lucky to have been able to outside at all. Not one broiler I raised ever had a name, they all looked identical to me, and I did not see their lives as equally valuable as those of my horses, cats, dogs, or even the other animals on the farm used for production. Additionally, they were only on the farm 8 or 9 weeks before the slaughter wagon pulled in the driveway.

On the morning that my consciousness first started shifting, I was bottle feeding a few of the dairy calves we would raise until they were old enough to be bred and sold. My husband poked his head in the barn and told me not to go into the broiler coop. So I finished feeding the last calf and made a beeline for the coop. Sitting outside the coop door were 6 bloody broilers on the grass, alive, some missing legs, some wings, some a leg and a wing. I was horrified; a fisher had gotten in the coop that night and mutilated them. My husband said that he was going to break their necks so that they didn’t have to suffer anymore. I hated him in that moment; I insisted we had to take them to the vet to be put down. I wouldn’t stand for their necks to be broken after the suffering they had already endured. That was the moment. That first moment when you suddenly can’t breathe because all of your energy is lost in reflection. If this fisher had never gotten to these birds, it would have only been a few more days before their heads would have been chopped off at the hands of my husband and friends. Why was chopping off their heads justifiable to me, but breaking their necks was not? It was the first time I had seen our broilers as individual animals, and not as the $12 each we would make from them.

I went inside, the chickens’ necks were broken, and for the first time in my entire life I prayed for guidance. I was flooded with guilt. Things didn’t change right away, but that was the day I started to question everything I had known.