You may picture a cow grazing on a lush hillside while chickens peck away at the ground, but get this: The term "free range" is absolutely unregulated for eggs, beef or any food except live poultry. Its a marketing claim with no standard definition and no government agency enforcing it, according to a worthwhile Consumers Union web site that truth-squads the meanings of labels. The only way to know what "free range" means is by asking the farmer or calling the company that produced the food.
So what about live poultry? Chickens that are "free range" may or may not live miserable lives; inquire with your producer. Thats because even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates "free range" poultry, its rules differ from that mental image of birds fluttering across a field and pecking at the ground. As Eco-labels put it: "The government only requires that outdoor access be made available for 'an undetermined period each day.' That means that the door to the coop or stall could be opened for five minutes a day and if the animal(s) did not see the open door or chose not to leave--even everyday--it could still qualify as free range.'" The USDA considers five minutes of daily open-air access adequate for use of the "free range" label.
Buying free-range is a great idea and noble pursuit, considering how conventionally raised farm animals live. Conventional eggs, for instance, typically come from caged hens that can't spread their wings; their cages usually afford less than half of a square foot of space per hen, according to the journal Law and Contemporary Problems published by Duke Law School. By contrast, all eggs produced in Switzerland come from cage-free hens and 82 percent are free-range.
"Contrary to the image of Old MacDonald's Farm, 99 percent of U.S. farm animals never spend time outdoors," the journal reported in Winter 2007. "They spend their entire lives overcrowded with tens of thousands of other animals, living in their own manure, in barren sheds." The journal concluded that "the United States trails the developed world in farm-animal welfare," and industry reforms "have not even approached government standards found in Europe, most of which are themselves minimal."
What you can do: Buy foods at farmers markets, where you can meet the producers and ask how their animals are raised. Ask your supermarket or the food company named on your meat label or egg carton how it cares for its animals. Consumers hold sway. The largest animal-welfare reforms in the US have been initiated by restaurants, according to the above-mentioned law journal. McDonalds after receiving consumer and activist complaints in 1999 ordered suppliers to make various changes, including increasing egg-laying hens space to 72 inches per bird. Burger King and Wendys later followed suit.
For more info:
How your meat gets from pasture to platter.
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