About Free Range Foods

Know what to look for when buying meat, eggs and poultry

The term free range generally signifies that farm animals have been allowed to wander freely without being fenced in or contained in any way. In the United States, however, the term free range has a much looser denotation. It simply means that at some point in time, the animal has been permitted to roam outside.

Free-range poultry

Free-range poultry is the only monitored free range food. The U.S Department of Agriculture demands that chickens labeled "free range" be given the freedom to roam outdoors, but does not specify or regulate how long the chickens must be permitted to explore outdoors each day.

In his 2006 article, "Basics of Meat Labels, Part II," published in The York Dispatch, nutritionist Charles Stuart Platkin, PhD, MPH, reports that the USDA stipulations only specify that free-range chickens have access to the outdoors but do not necessitate that they actually step outside. The Washington Post Magazine states that the term free range is not indicative of the amount of time a chicken spends outdoors, nor the kind of life it has led.

Organic free range

Animals that are not raised on an organic farm are fed grains that contain chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which are then stored as toxins in the fat of the animals. According to Johns Hopkins Public Health, humans are at risk of consuming these residual toxins when eating non-organic meat. American cattle raised on non-organic farms are routinely injected with growth hormones.

The European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures has confirmed that eating cattle injected with growth hormones poses a serious health risk to humans. Refusing to allow the importation of hormone-injected beef, the European Union banned US-imported beef in 1988. Furthermore, spending days in the confines of a too-small space, lack of exercise and high stress due to unnatural living conditions can cause disease to spread among farm animals. Antibiotics are used to curtail the spread of sickness, but humans ingest the residual effects of these drugs when consuming conventionally raised meat or non-organic dairy products.

Organic meat, poultry and eggs are raised on a diet of organic grain — grain grown without the use of chemicals — and are not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones of any kind. Without the certification of free range, however, there is no certainty that the animals were ever allowed access to outdoors. Look for a combination of organic and free-range certification to ensure that the food products you are eating come from an animal raised in more healthful conditions.

Purchasing free-range foods

Although the standards for free-range foods set by the USDA are not ideal, they do offer an alternative to traditional meat, poultry, dairy and egg products. According to the Duke Law School journal, Law and Contemporary Problems, 99 percent of U.S. Farm animals never experience the outdoors. The journal indicates that the majority of farm animals in the United States live in simple sheds where they endure squalid conditions and gross overcrowding their whole lives.

The only way to really know how free range the food products you purchase are is to purchase your free-range products at your local farmers market. These local venues give you the opportunity to ask specific questions as to how the animals are raised. If you purchase your free-range products from the supermarket, you can contact the agricultural company to find out the specifics on its free-range practices.

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