The True Cost of Free-range, Cage-free, Organic and Pastured Chicken
Chicken had always been my go-to protein. With high rent, coffee and transit expenses building up, I needed to find any small way to save. So, I decided to opt for free-range chicken instead of organic, assuming that they stood for similar ideas, just with a two-dollar difference on the price tag.
The term ‘free range’ connotes chickens grazing on the open land, well taken care of and vital. Green meadows, sunshine, and smiling hens. Yeah — right. In today’s society we take a lot of things for granted, and behind our high-rise buildings and city smog we tend to lose sight of how our food is actually produced.
After a bit research, I discovered that the term I was looking for was ‘pastured’, better yet ‘fully pastured,’ while ‘free range’ can boil down to the chickens just getting glimpses of daylight everyday.3 This raised questions, and the flood of different terms in the poultry section have become more confusing than helpful. So, we (WildKale) decided to end the confusion.
Free-Range chicken is a term that is supposed to mean, raised under the open air. To make this so, it received a new designation and set of requirements in 2014 by the HSUS. Before that, farmers who supplied some of the conglomerate chicken producers could get away with putting a window on a coop, and calling it outdoors. Now, after legal regulations have been put in place, the birds must be outdoors 6 hours a day, weather permitting, and given 2 sq. feet per bird.[i] 2 sq. feet per bird, or about two A4 sheets put next to each other — that’s the Lower East Side starter pack for chickens.
Pasture raised, on the other hand, is closer to that idyllic vision of farmland chickens. The requirements for this designation are 108 sq. feet per bird, and the rotation of fields.1 This means they must be outdoors year round with a coop only for protection from predators. Two examples in New York State, both of which supply Wildkale.com, are Arcadian Pastures and Carlton Farms.
The organic certification however, is an entirely different category. It is defined by what the chickens eat — 100% organic feed. While this is certainly healthier for the chickens, as it is for us, it does not mean that the chickens have a humane upbringing. Think of it as a separate qualification, and search for chicken that is both organic and pasture raised.
Cage-free sounds nice as well, but in truth, it’s one rung below free-range. It is defined that chickens are given 2 sq. feet per bird, but indoors. The problem with these definitions is that up until now they haven’t had legal backing, and the consequences aren’t dramatic enough to convince some producers otherwise. For example, there are free-range chicken farms that give their chickens access to the outside, but the chickens are so packed in their coops, that they never find this access point before they are smothered. Imagine you have 10 seconds to find the correct exit at Times Square, frightening isn’t it.
Since legal backing doesn’t seem to be persuading certain producers to change their ways, it’s up to us to hold them accountable. How? Those of us who can afford to do so, should change our eating habits, start taking responsibility for our choices, and spread the knowledge. By setting a good example, we can shift how as a community and a country, we approach food.
- “Free Range” and “Pasture Raised” officially defined by HFAC for Certified Humane® label.” Certified Humane, 16 Jan. 2014, http://certifiedhumane.org/free-range-and-pasture-raised-officially-defined-by-hfac-for-certified-humane-label/
- Lam, Francis. “What do “free range,” “organic” and other chicken labels really mean?” Salon, 20 Jan. 2011, http://www.salon.com/2011/01/20/what_chicken_labels_really_mean/
- Good, Kate. “Think You Know ‘Free-Range’ and ‘Cage Free’ Chicken? Think Again.” One Green Planet, 2 Jan. 2015, http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/think-you-know-free-range-and-cage-free-chicken-think-again/