The labels “free-range,” “free-farmed,” and “cage-free” can be just as important in deciding which eggs or poultry to buy as Made in the USA is in shopping for sneakers. But while the Federal Trade Commission vigorously monitors products labeled Made in the USA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has instituted animal-raising regulations so broad that labels such as free-range are virtually meaningless. Producers monitor their own production methods—and interpret the rules.
We imagine free-range chickens and turkeys wandering about the countryside, grazing, taking dust baths, socializing. But “free-range” birds (and the eggs they produce) can be reared in the same unsavory conditions we expect from the largest broiler producers. Consumers are spending more money for labeled products that don’t deliver what the label promises.
Chickens and turkeys are exempt from many of the protective federal and state provisions that monitor the treatment of animals. The federal Animal Welfare Act excludes all farm animals (including horses), and chickens and turkeys fall outside many state regulations and the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Nora Kramer, director of the San Francisco chapter of the Empathy Project, says, “Nine billion chickens and turkeys are killed each year, with no laws protecting them.” Because farm animals are excluded from the Animal Welfare Act, factory farms have no motivation to clean up their practices.
USDA regulations require that animals labeled free-range be given access to the outdoors. There is no limit to the number that can be held in an enclosed area and no guarantee that the animals spend time outside. A pitch-black, feces-ridden warehouse stuffed to the brim with chickens would be considered an honest-to-goodness free-range farm if, at the far end of the enclosure, there was a small opening through which a few brave hens could break free. Still, most free-range poultry farmers defend the label, arguing that there is a considerable difference between free-range and factory-farmed poultry. Rick Pitman of Mary’s Free Range Turkey in Madera says, “We are very careful in the way we treat the birds. It is definitely a less crowded atmosphere.”
Some argue that access to lush fields is irrelevant because chickens and turkeys bred to be consumed are over-fed until they become too crippled to walk. Fifty years ago, raising a five-pound chicken took 84 days. Now, because of “advances” in nutrition and breeding, a five-pound chicken can be reared in only 45 days. Prone to heart failure and stroke, these birds can hardly stand due to their speedy growth.
Free-range and other labels say nothing about the common practice of de-beaking, which involves slicing off the upper beak of a chick with a hot blade. “The vast majority of chickens that are raised for food are de-beaked” says Kramer. “We can either give them more room or cut their beaks off, and it’s cheaper to cut their beaks off.”
Then there’s another reality of an industry that raises 245 million laying hens every year. “250 to 300 million male chicks die at birth because they are useless, meaning not profitable,” Kramer says. These male chicks are destroyed in machines called macerators or just tossed in bins to die. The result is turned into pet food or fed to chickens, pigs, and cattle.
There still may be hope for those of us hoping to purchase eggs, dairy, and poultry products from humanely raised animals. The American Humane Association has designed a Free Farmed seal for farms that do not use cages, antibiotics, hormones, or employ forced molting—starving hens to bring on a molt and another cycle of egg production. The program includes rigorous inspections of participating farms. The Free Farmed seal does not mean access to pasture, but it ensures that the birds are not raised in high-density battery cages.
The welfare of animals, particularly of livestock, always founders on money—the industry’s and our own. An overwhelming majority of Americans support humane treatment, but in a 1999 survey by the Animal Industry Foundation, respondents said they are willing to pay only 5 percent more for a product from a humanely treated animal. Says Kramer, “You’re voting with your dollar every time you buy something.”