Does Free Range Really Mean What You Think?
When we started Pasturebird, we were on a mission to find the best possible chicken to feed our families. What began as a few dozen backyard chickens has turned into one of the largest pasture raised chicken operations in the country, with farms in two states. We’re pretty proud of that.
We’re even more proud of the fact that we’ve stuck to our principles as our company has grown. After all, the whole reason we started raising our own chickens in the first place was due to a distrust of the labels and products available in our grocery stores. We used to be pretty trusting of those fancy marketing campaigns and clever labeling - but the more we educated ourselves about the realities of poultry farming, and farming in general, the more we realized that the products we were buying weren’t necessarily all we thought they were.
What Does “Free Range” Mean?
When you hear the term “free range”, you probably picture chickens roaming free on land, exposed to fresh air and sunlight and with plenty of space to move and forage. Free range birds are required by law to have “access” to the “outdoors”, but there is no definition as to what exactly “access” to the “outdoors” entails. The truth is, most free range chickens live indoors their whole lives, packed tightly together. As long as there is a small opening in the barn, those chickens can be called “free range” - even if that door leads to a concrete pad rather than pasture. Believe it or not, there is no on-farm inspection required for chicken to be labeled free range! According to greenerchoices.org, to obtain a free range label for chicken:
The labeling claim is verified by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. FSIS staff performs a review of a one-time application and supporting documentation supplied by the company making the claim….and requires only that “producers must demonstrate . . . that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
So, the application is examined - but not the farm!? This allows for a lot of leeway when it comes to touting products as free range, and in our opinion, it’s just not worth the extra cost for a product that isn’t guaranteed to be any better than chicken or eggs without the free range label. While companies that market their poultry as free range charge a premium of usually at least a couple of dollars higher than conventional chicken and eggs, there’s really no measurable difference in the products. More often than not, those extra couple of dollars are going to pay for expensive marketing campaigns and fancy labels rather than higher-quality products.
How Can You Know Which Labels to Trust?
You’re probably wondering, if there’s so much mislabeling out there, how do you know which companies you can trust?
Luckily, we live in an age where information is so easily accessible, right at our fingertips. It may take a bit of research, but if you’re truly invested in making sure that you consume food that’s all it’s cracked up to be, it’s a worthy investment of your time. Our general rule of thumb is that companies that focus on transparency are generally the ones you want to support. Anyone can come up with a fancy label or slogan to market their products, but if a farm actually invites you to get an inside look into their practices, there’s a good chance they have nothing to hide.
As we’ve explained in previous posts, transparency can be defined as being open and honest with consumers about how food is produced, where it comes from, and how it winds up in the hands of consumers. Transparency at the farm level is especially important, because a company can package their chicken or eggs in recycled/sustainable packaging to appeal to the green consumer, but if the chickens are grown or raised in an inhumane or unsustainable way, responsible consumers will find themselves misled about the true impact of that product.
When deciding which companies to support, look for the ones that offer an open-book approach to their business or farming practices. While it’s important to note that with any working farm there will be a limit to the level of accessibility that can be offered to the public, regular farm tours or a regular social media presence showing “behind the scenes” footage of how the animals are raised can give you insight into that company’s ethics and business practices. We try to educate our consumers to make informed decisions by offering regular insight in the form of our blog posts and social media presence into what drives us as a company and the importance of animal welfare, regenerative agriculture, and environmental sustainability.
What Makes Pasturebird Different?
If you follow our blog, you’ll know that even the pasture raised label can sometimes be misused by unethical companies. But when you buy from a transparent, reputable, third-party verified company like Pasturebird, you can rest assured that our pasture raised chicken is exactly that - chicken that has been raised outdoors, 24/7 and afforded daily access to fresh air, sunlight, and a healthy chicken diet of bugs, seeds, worms, grains, nuts, and grasses. At our farms, animal welfare is top priority, as is environmental responsibility. Call it karma or just smart farming, but our commitment to being responsible farmers allows us to offer our customers pasture raised chicken that has proven to be healthier and more nutrient dense than conventionally-raised chicken. Our chicken has 50% more vitamins A and E, 3x the omega 3s, and 21% less saturated fat than its conventionally-raised counterparts, not to mention a much more robust and savory taste due to the varied and complex nutrient-dense diet our chickens receive on pasture.
Bottom line - if you’re invested in your health and being an ethical consumer is important to you, do your research. It’s easy to be swayed by catchy labels or greenwashing, but don’t let that replace becoming educated about the food choices you make. Your wallet, your health, and your conscience will thank you!