Debate over the ethics and merits of free range chicken farming versus the standard housed and constrained raising of broiler chickens and egg-layers, which has become prevalent since the 1920s, frequently raises people’s feathers on both sides. The issue is primarily an animal welfare one. In the United States of America it is often debated as an animal rights issue instead.
The definition of free range also differs between the US and the rest of the world. Free range in the US meaning chickens have access to an outside area; the size and quality of that area is undefined and the length of time it is made available to the chickens is also unspecified under the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) regulations.
In the other nations of the Western world, free range normally means that the chickens, or any other domestic farm animal, is free roaming, while usually having some form of constructed shelter available for its use when the animal desires it, during inclement weather for example. How well free range farms outside the US meet this definition is often, however, yet another topic for debate.
Advocates of free range chicken farming often state that free range chicken eggs and meat are of higher quality and taste better because the chickens live a happier and less stressful life. However, the difference in definition between the US and elsewhere of what free range means complicates and confuses this subjective argument.
A limited taste study conducted in the UK by the School of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol, found that their human test subjects preferred the taste of standardly produced chicken meat the best and organically produced the least. Free range and maize-fed chicken meat fell between these two preferences. The fact that UK cuisine is not exactly highly regarded by the world’s gourmands, and the limited size of the study, may render the validity of this result yet again, debatable.
Sweden is one of the world’s leaders in animal welfare legislation. The Swedish Animal Welfare Act of 1988 mandated that egg production eventually be switched from conventional battery cages to litter-based systems such as enriched cages and free range systems. A study conducted between 2001 and 2004 based on the necropsies (animal equivalent of autopsies) of 914 laying hens sent to the Swedish National Veterinary Institute found that those raised in litter-based or free range systems were at higher risk of contracting infectious diseases or suffering cannibalistic behavior than laying hens in cages. Yet again the result is debatable, as those farmers still using battery cages may have been reluctant to declare how many of their chickens had died or send a representative sample to the Institute.
A survey of chicken carcass condemnation, that is rejection of carcasses as unfit for human consumption, carried out at a poultry abattoir in Ontario, Canada between April 1991 and March 1992 found that a larger percentage (1.48%) of those raised in standard housing were condemned than those raised in free range systems (0.94%). A significant proportion of those rejected from free range systems were due to mutilation (hen pecking and cannibalism) rather than disease conditions, indicating a better overall health in the chickens from free range systems.
The only thing made clear by the various research studies published to date is that it is unclear whether free range chickens are healthier than those kept in constrained housing and it is unclear whether their eggs and meat taste better. So, as stated at the beginning of this article, the issue that we all must consider or ignore is an animal welfare one.
That free range chickens can better express their instinctive behaviors, such as scratching the ground and nest building, should be fairly clear to most of us. That they have physiological responses to environmental conditions that are essentially the same as ours is clear to anyone with a detailed knowledge of animal physiology, but less so to most of us. Particularly those of us who have never come face to face with a live chicken. Yes, they feel pain. They feel hot when the temperature is high, and they feel parched when water is not available to meet their needs. And most importantly, they feel constrained when they spend their whole lives in small cages.
Brown, S., Nute, G., Baker, A., Hughes, S. & Wariss, P. (2008) Aspects of meat and eating quality of broiler chickens reared under standard, maize-fed, free-range or organic systems. British Poultry Science 49(2): p118-124.
Fossum, O., Jansson, D., Etterlin, P. & Vagsholm, I. (2009) Causes of mortality in laying hens in different housing systems in 2001 to 2004. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 51(1): p3-3.
Herenda, D. & Jakel, O. (1994) Poultry abattoir survey of carcass condemnation for standard, vegetarian, and free range chickens. The Canadian Veterinary Journal 35(5): p293-296.