Chicken and eggs carry a variety of claims in the grocery store, from free-range to organic to no-antibiotics to natural (see References 1). These labels can be confusing when you're looking for a healthier product. Free-range poultry can offer health and other benefits, but you'll need to look beyond the label to determine whether the poultry comes from a source you trust.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines free-range as allowing chickens to have some access to an outside area (see References 1). The definition of free-range does not include specifications on how long chickens should remain outside and under what conditions. Chickens can be outside on concrete for a short period of time each day, for example, and still be labeled as free-range in the grocery store. The labels free-range and cage-free can cause confusion. Cage-free means chickens raised for meat were not kept in cages within a warehouse. Cage-free does not mean that chickens have access to outside areas. To ensure you're purchasing meat and eggs from free-range chickens that foraged on grubs and plants as in a natural environment, look for indications on the packaging that the chickens were pastured, or find poultry with the "Animal Welfare Approved" label, which is handed out by a nonprofit watchdog group (see References 2). Alternatively, buy from a local farmer who can guarantee the chickens ranged on pasture for a majority of each day.
Reports have been mixed on health benefits of free-range chicken. But some smaller studies indicate that pastured chickens may be healthier. A 2003 study by Penn State University researchers found that eggs from pastured hens have higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E (see References 3). For the greatest health benefits, purchase poultry and eggs from a trusted source so you know the chickens ranged freely on pesticide-free grass.
Chickens confined to shared cages inside warehouses don't engage in their natural behaviors, such as foraging, taking dust baths and flapping their wings (see References 4). If you are concerned about the amount of antibiotics fed to chickens, purchase poultry and eggs labeled with both free-range and no-antibiotic-added labels (see References 1).
On the Farm or In the Backyard
Free-range chickens on your farm or in your backyard can benefit your landscape. Farmers use mobile chicken pens to move chickens around on their agricultural lands. Chickens forage for insects and eat leftover crops such as lettuce and other greens while at the same time fertilizing the soil (see References 4, page 8). This creates a symbiotic relationship between the animals and the land. A few chickens in your backyard can help reduce pests in your garden and provide you with a source of fertilizer.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms
- Animal Welfare Approved: What Do Food Labels Really Mean?
- Penn State University; "Pasture-ized Poultry"; Joanna Lott; May 2003
- ATTRA -- National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service; "Alternative Poultry Production Systems and Outdoor Access; Anne Fanatico; 2006
Erika Sanders has been writing since 1997. She teaches writing at the Washington State Reformatory and edits the monthly newsletter for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, a national nonprofit organization. She received her Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the Solstice Program at Pine Manor College in Boston.
- Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images