Definition of Free Range

What Is Free Range?

The term, free range is a farming method whereby animals are given the ability to roam freely instead of being restricted to a confined area. This term can be applied to egg, dairy, poultry, and meat production. Free range is becoming increasingly popular with food producers but one that is hard for consumers to comprehend given the mixed messages they receive on product labeling and advertising.

It wasn’t until the 1920s when commercial scale factory farms began to become popular that animals raised for food were confined densely to indoor barns with limited ability to move, raise their young, eat naturally, and so on. Factory farm conditions can be inhumane and unhealthy for the animals, and as a result, commercial farmers are often forced to feed these animals large doses of antibiotics and steroids to battle disease and encourage growth. In contrast, the concept of free range means that the animals are given free access to outdoor environments for at least a portion of every day (when safe) rather than being confined indoors all of the time.

There are many official labeling guidelines that result in a variety of different living conditions for animals raised for food.

  • USDA labeling: As far as the US Food Safety and Inspection Service, “free range” or “free roaming” refers only to chickens that are allowed access to outdoor environments (there’s no specification for how much time or the quality of the outdoor environment).
  • EU labeling: Free range eggs collected from hens in the European Union, at minimum, must have continuous daytime access to open-air runs that are mainly covered with vegetation and not used for other purposes that meet maximum stocking densities. The EU has similar conditions for broiler hens (raise for meat), but does not have free range standards for pigs and other animals.
  • UK labeling: The UK has free range standards for laying hens, sows, turkeys, and chickens that provides required conditions for access to the outdoors, living conditions, food provided, and so on. Sows, for instance, have maximum stocking requirements and must be given straw for bedding, etc. Turkeys must be provided continuous access to outdoor ranges during the day that are covered with vegetation and room for exercising.

Other labels are often used to describe conditions similar to free range farming, including cage-free, free running, naturally nested, free roaming, and so on. Consumers looking for ways to find truly free range dairy, egg, meat, and poultry products should either look for official, third-party verified labels confirming the conditions the animals were raised under, or visit a local family farm to see the conditions for themselves before buying.

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