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Free Range vs. Pasture Raised

March 10, 2010

I’ve been calling my chickens free range, and after reading Angie’s post on Herb Roasted Pasture-Raised Chicken at Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Sugar-Free yesterday, I was reminded that I needed to clarify myself.

Pasture-raised poultry, according to Wikipedia, is “a sustainable agriculture technique that calls for the raising of laying chickens, meat chickens (broilers), and/or turkeys on pasture, as opposed to indoor confinement. The perceived health benefits of pastured poultry, and grass-fed animals in general, in addition to superior texture and flavor are causing an increase in demand for such products.”

The health benefits of pasture-raised chicken include (as compared to factory-farmed chicken):

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene

Sounds good, doesn’t it? All you need to do is find a local, pasture-raised chicken provider.

So what’s free-range chicken, then? Well, it used to mean pasture-raised. But then the whole organic/free-range thing got trendy (and with good reason, as you just saw above), and the factory-chicken people wanted in on it (it’s clearly a great marketing tactic), so the definition was broadened, and basically it really doesn’t mean much at all these days.

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) only requires that chickens raised for meat have access to the outdoors in order to receive “free-range” certification. This just means: outside. It doesn’t require pasture, and the birds may only have access to dirt or gravel. In some instances, it just means that there is an open door in the building where the chickens are raised, and they can go outside if it occurs to them to do so.

And that’s just the chickens raised for meat. There is no restriction whatsoever in the US for free range eggs, meaning that eggs can be marketed as “free range” if the chickens’ cages (yes, cages) are just a bit larger than the standard size, or if the building where their cages are housed has a window. Free range? Hardly.

Oh, and that’s just housing. Factory-farm chickens, caged chickens, “free range” chickens, or whatever you call them (we’re not referring to pasture-raised birds here), usually eat feed that includes grains, which chickens aren’t naturally evolved to consume.

What?! Chickens don’t eat grain? Well, most of them do, because that’s what factory chickens are fed. But chickens are omnivores, and naturally eat seeds, insects, and grubs. They can also consume small lizards, mice, and frogs. No, chickens are not vegetarian. Still, you don’t see pasture-raised chickens hunting down cows or snacking on fish.

Which is more than we can say of factory chickens. Poultry feed on large commercial farms may also include ingredients of animal origin, including discarded chicken parts from processing factories. Reuse and recycle isn’t always a good thing, you know. Many countries have outlawed animal cannibalism, but in these areas chickens may be fed cow or fish parts, which are far removed from a chicken’s natural food source.

Factory chickens generally also consume growth hormones, for obvious reasons. A factory chicken is generally harvested at 45 days, while a pasture-raised chicken lives twice as long before being harvested for consumption. And because they live so close together in cramped and unsanitary quarters (and thus risk contaminating each other if some of them get sick), factory chickens are generally given small quantities of antibiotics, on a daily basis.

But if you’ve read anything about food lately, you probably know all this. Still, I don’t tire of reading it because the more I read, the more I understand the importance of preparing home cooked meals with quality ingredients, even if that means spending more on food. And that’s why, when I called yesterday to place my chicken order for today’s delivery, I asked some extra questions.

I get both chickens and eggs (and, oh yes, the rabbit) delivered to our apartment every Wednesday. The chickens are pasture-raised, which means they are outside in the open, in the pasture, all day, every day, and go inside only at night, on their own (according to my provider). They are not given growth hormones or antibiotics, though they are given corn and grain in addition to what they get from the pasture.

I wasn’t happy to hear about the grain, but this is the best chicken I’ve come by in our area, so I’m going to stick with them for now. And next week, I’m going to ask if we can visit the farm.

Urban diners are generally far removed from their food sources, and I want to make an effort to get to know where our food comes from, personally. I know we can visit our goat cheese farm, which we’re planning to do, and I’d love to visit our chicken farm.

I’ll be updating, with photos of course, once we do.

Have any of you visited your food sources? Where do you get your meat and veggies from? Do you make an extra effort to learn where your cooking materials come from?

Happy (pasture-raised) eating!

  1. March 10, 2010 19:58

    Ever since I saw the movie Food, Inc. I can’t stomach the thought of commercial chicken.

    I credit giving up commercial meat with my 10 cm fibroid dissolving. I think it was the hormones and antibiotics.

  2. March 10, 2010 23:54

    Oh, yes. Food, Inc. was the start of it for me. First the film (which I was SO sad to hear didn’t win the Oscar) and then the book. Then Fast Food Nation, In Defense of Food, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for the second time (which I’m on now).

    Good for you on the fibroid!

    What we put in our bodies is SO important. Like I read the other day on the web, “Take care of your body. It’s not a rental car.” People pay extra to put Super rather than Regular Unleaded gasoline in their cars, yet they won’t spend the extra cash on organic fruit and veggies or pasture-raised animals.

    It all pays off in the long run…or comes back to haunt us. We make a choice every time we sit down to eat.


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