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Free-Range, Grass-Fed, Cage-Free, Etc.: Does It Really Matter?

Jamell Andrews

For conscious eaters, there are many disturbing things about the modern food industry. And while there is much that needs improvement, the one thing that sets all natural foodies’ teeth on edge is the horrendous treatment of animals in today’s corporate farms. Many consumers are fed up with the food industry’s way of doing things and are looking for more ethical options at the grocery store. Now, some companies are beginning to rise to the challenge, offering products that supposedly dispense with “factory-farming” methods and treat animals with respect. But are such products for real, or are they just employing a clever marketing gimmick?

What is free range?
To put it simply, free-range meat comes from farms where animals are allowed to roam freely in outdoor areas for at least part of the day. This contrasts starkly with typical factory-farming conditions, where cows and pigs are kept in pens barely large enough to hold them, and chickens are packed together in crowded cages (and in many cases de-beaked). Most people would agree that such conditions are unethical by any measure. Free-range farming reverses the trajectory that large-scale farming has been taking over the last century and returns to animals the dignity they have lost.

There are obvious benefits to free-range farming. Most important, giving animals room to roam is simply the right thing to do. Setting aside the issue of whether it is okay to kill animals for food, most of us can agree that animals should be treated well during the time they have on earth. Doing so may cost a little extra money for the farmer, but given the other reasons why free-range is good for animals and consumers, it is undeniably a better way to raise animals.

Here are some other reasons why free-range farming is better for animals, producers, and consumers:

  • Since disease thrives in conditions where animals are packed tightly together, factory-farmed animals must be pumped full of all kinds antibiotics and other drugs. These make their way into the meat.
  • Since factory-farmed animals get little if any exercise, they are often given hormones and steroids to encourage the growth of muscle. These, too, make their way into the meat.
  • Certified free-range meat can be sold at higher prices than meat produced in the conventional ways, thus allowing producers to make greater profits.
  • Free-range animals are cheaper to feed than factory-farmed ones.
  • Free-range animals produce a higher-quality meat.

How free is free range?
Although free-range farming is good in theory, consumers should be aware that it is not always as advertised. The good news is that in the U.S. and many other developed countries, the use of the term “free-range” by companies is regulated by government agencies, and producers must meet certain requirements if they wish to use the label. The bad news is that the regulations are rather lax.

In the U.S., “free range” applies only to poultry, and the regulations say nothing about how much access the animal must have to the outside and the conditions of the outdoor range. So farmers do not have to do much to earn the right to use the label. For beef, the equivalent term is “grass-fed,” and the regulations for “grass-fed” are similarly lax.

So ultimately, the ethics of food production is still up to each individual producer. The regulations help a little, but it is quite possible to produce free-range and grass-fed meat in unethical conditions. For consumers who care deeply about these matters, there are two best courses of action: (1) Research individual companies to discover the details of their production methods, or (2) buy at the farmer’s market, where you can talk to individual producers about their methods.

Related terms

  • Organic: Like “free-range,” “organic” is a regulated label that can be vague in many respects, and it is easy for companies to earn this designation. Still, certified organic producers must avoid genetically modified organisms in their production, must not use antibiotics, must feed their livestock only organic feed, and must raise their animals on certified organic ranges. So organic is undoubtedly better than nonorganic.
  • Grass-fed: “Grass-fed,” which is synonymous with “pasture-raised,” indicates that the animal eats a diet made primarily of pasture grass or grains harvested directly from a pasture.
  • Cage-free: Under U.S. regulations, “cage-free” is actually the same as “free-range.” So when you see a company advertising their eggs as both free-range and cage-free, it is redundant.

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