What You Should Know About All Natural, Cage Free, and Free Range Chicken
Do you ever wonder if those labels on your chicken really mean what they want you to believe they mean?
If so, you’re not alone.
In fact, we had the same concerns, and it’s a big reason why we started raising our own... That way we wouldn't have to guess what the labels really meant ever again!
Now we wouldn’t expect you to take such (what some might consider) “extreme” action yourself, just for the sake of worrying less about labels.
But we strongly believe you deserve to have better information about the most common labels on chicken because it will help you make the most well-informed buying decision possible. That is, outside of visiting the farm and meeting the farmers for yourself (that’s what we’d recommend!).
So let’s get started…
This is a label you will see in reference to egg-laying birds, which historically, have been subjected to some of the worst abuse thanks in large part to their confinement in battery cages.
These cages earned their name due to the way they are tightly packed in small spaces end-to-end like batteries in a remote control. Multiple chickens are jammed into these little cages which provide about the same square footage as a sheet of paper.
Cage Free chickens are not subjected to the horrors of battery cages, but they are not free from indoor confinement either. Instead of what the label might seem to suggest, these birds still live inside, unlikely to ever see the light of day or feel grass beneath their feet. And they will typically be packed in with thousands of other birds. The smell alone of facilities like these would be enough to keep you away for good.
Although it's an improvement over battery cage confinement, the "Cage Free" moniker simply does not go far enough in providing for the ultimate wellbeing of chickens.
If a chicken bears the words “All Natural” on its packaging, then you can rest assured something about it isn’t. Products that use "minimal processing" and contain "no artificial ingredients or colors" can use this label. But this is an extremely low standard. In fact, almost all meat products meet this definition by default, rendering the label practically meaningless.
It’s not natural for an animal to live indoors its whole life, crammed in a hot warehouse amongst thousands of others of its kind and force fed a diet of little more than manufactured protein pellets. But that’s likely what you get with a bird simply labeled “All Natural.”
The living conditions of the bird are hardly a consideration in attaining this label. To us, it's pretty much a joke.
“Free Range" conjures up imagery of green grass, fresh air, and sunshine. Unfortunately the reality for birds raised under the “Free Range” standard can be quite different.
"Free Range" birds can be raised in extremely crowded indoor confinement. To receive the “Free Range” label they must be provided “access to the outdoors.” This typically means little more than a small door somewhere in the barn that leads to an outdoor area. Many birds will never even find the door. They will choose instead to stay in the same general area as they are fed and swell to full-grown size in as little as 6 weeks.
“Free Range” might come the closest to tricking you into believing you are actually buying meat from an animal raised outdoors. That was certainly what we used to think.
When we learned the truth was that they didn't actually live outside their whole lives with access to pasture where they could hunt for bugs as they instinctively want to do or soak in the sun and fresh air (which they thoroughly enjoy), it became clear that labels alone were not something we could rely on. We needed to go straight to the source of our food ourselves.
We hope you feel better informed about the 3 most common labels on store-bought chicken today. Certainly, some labels represent better conditions than others, and perhaps having labels is better than not having them. It's unfortunate that they can so easily be misinterpreted, but at the end of the day, we as consumers must take full responsibility for what we put in our bodies.
Again, we have to emphasize that the only way to be 100% confident about your food is to go directly to the source. Find a local farmer and visit their farm. Ask questions, do your homework!
Any farmer unwilling to be transparent with you should be an immediate red flag.
PS: If you want to learn about the "Pasture Raised" standard (which we follow here at Pasture Brothers but they don't have a universally agreed-upon label for just yet), take a look at this handy chart that we created to provide you with more information.