Unless you go to the lengths Carrie and Fred do to eat well-treated livestock in the pilot episode of Portlandia chances are, the free-range chicken you purchased at your local grocery store was given a pathetically limited range of space in the facility at which it was kept.
While the United States Department of Agriculture defines free-range as “poultry that has allowed access to the outside,” there are currently no rules or regulations on what dimensions of the outside a chicken has access to. While some farms may claim to host cage-free facilities for chickens, they refrain from explaining the full details of their alternate spaces, that which may includes areas if not caged, then equally constricting in size and occupants. Once these hens lay eggs, they are immediately deemed useless. Humanemyth.org states, “Hens used for egg production come from hatcheries, where male chicks (none of which can lay eggs) are killed immediately after hatching. Each year, hundreds of millions of these vulnerable beings are suffocated or ground up alive to produce fertilizer or feed.”
The Daily Mail investigates “free range” in the UK in November 2013.
In addition to having cramped living arrangements, farmers utilize “free range” as a way to increase the amount of chickens occupying those spaces. Chickens have a special dendrite in their upper beaks that create magnetoreception, which allows them to function in smaller living spaces.
However, farms often distort the beaks of chicken used for eggs to prevent damage to others around them. “Beak trimming” is a common practice in a cage-free facility – a process in which a baby chick’s beak will be cut off without anesthesia. As a result, they are less inclined to pluck the feathers of others so closely around them. Thus, the trimmed beaks with these abilities prevent chickens from re-orientating themselves in this system.
Another simple method that farmers employ to reduce feather plucking in these facilities is light dimming, just enough to lay eggs and enough that the chickens will hopefully not see each other’s wounds. In Sarah Taylor’s “Vegetarian to Vegan: Give Up Dairy, Give Up Eggs for Good,” she exposes the results of this practice. She explains, “If works turn on bright lights unexpectedly so they can conduct inspections, the hens become alarmed, and can start to panic. Feather pecking actually increases under these conditions and widespread hysteria leads to further injuries.”
The terms free range and organic are not synonymous with each other either. While cage free eggs may be GMO-free, the chickens are still exposed to unhealthy chemicals and waste, simply from the unsanitary conditions in which they cohabit. Humane Myth exposes the toxic nature of keeping animals so close together. They claim, “The concentrated waste products expose them to toxic gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.”
Business Insider also reports the effects of dirty conditions in these spaces after witnessing a supplier for Perdue Farms, noting, “The dirty, overcrowded conditions at Watts’ [the supplier’s] barns have left the chickens’ bellies raw and red. Most of the chickens have a massive bedsore.”
While cage-free chicken may initially sound like a more humane way to consume meat, venture a little further into what other practices may be more or less palatable for your tastes. As of right now, Fred and Carrie’s method is the way to go.