by Cheryl Long
“Free range” refers to chickens being allowed to range freely outdoors where they can eat whatever grass, weed seeds, insects and worms they choose. This results in more nutritious eggs and meat for consumers, and more healthy, humane conditions for the birds. Some producers abuse this term and label their eggs as “free range” when in fact all they have done is open a door to allow their chickens to range in an outdoor area of bare dirt or concrete, with no pasture in sight.
Thus you need to confirm if your eggs or chicken comes from “true” or “pastured” or “grass-fed” free-range conditions. Also, some producers choose a modified system that involves keeping birds safe from predators by confining them in pens or inside electric fencing, and moving the pens frequently onto fresh pastures. Thus, pastured birds may be true free-range or penned, but either system is correctly referred to as “pastured.” And either system is a better choice than products that come from industrial factory farm conditions.
To learn a great deal more about all the terminology you might have to decipher on egg cartons these days (like “cage free” or “enhanced with omega-3s”), check out How to Decode Egg Cartons.
See also: USDA definition
The United States Department of Agriculture offers this definition:
FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING: Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.
But “allowing access” doesn’t mean much. A small door in a barn with thousands of chickens technically gives chickens an opportunity to go outside, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll have access to grass (it may only be a concrete slab). For chickens to produce the most healthful and flavorful eggs and meat, they need to be able to eat a variety of green plants, seeds and bugs. Unfortunately, you can’t tell how the chickens live by reading the package in a store. I’d encourage you to find a local farmer who raises poultry on pasture.
For more information on this subject, read Free Range vs. Pastured: Chickens and Eggs.
— Troy Griepentrog, associate editor