A few weeks ago I spent the day at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a non-profit farm and education center located just 25 miles north of Manhattan. It was their annual Harvest Day Festival and the grounds were covered with local food and drink purveyors, hayrides, a farmer’s market, live music, cooking demonstrations, and greenhouse tours. I tasted the best arugula I’ve ever had, watched piglets sleeping, and dare I say played with chickens that were actually running around. I must not get to the country enough because I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw hundreds of farm animals in wide-open spaces, free to roam, play, eat and drink. They were the very definition of free-range and cage-free. Which got me thinking about all the labels we see on meat, especially those on chicken. The options can make anyone’s head spin. What’s better, organic, cage-free, free-range or certified-humane?
Here’s a breakdown of what those labels really mean…
Antibiotic-Free: The term “antibiotic-free” can only be used on poultry labels when the producer demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics has provided sufficient documentation.
Cage-Free: “Cage free” means the chickens were not kept in battery cages (where they are crammed so tightly together they can barely move). This simply means that the hens are not kept in cages, though there are no regulations to govern care beyond that. Cage-free is a commercial designation, not one by the USDA and there is very little actual regulation. There are some definitions published by the USDA, which are called “Trade Descriptions“, although they are voluntary, many poultry farms conform to them.
Certified-Humane: Certified-humane is an unregulated definition. However the most prominent organization, Humane Farm Animal Care, has a certification process, which includes no cages, and hens having at least 1.5 square feet of floor space. Free-range hens must have outside access, and doors to the outside “must allow more than one hen at a time to exit”. De-beaking is allowed, but some of the more barbaric practices common to conventionally raised hens (such as “forced moulting” where hens nearly at the end of their laying are deprived to food, water, and light for days to weeks to produce one more bout of egg-laying) are not.
Free-Range: In the United States, USDA regulations apply only to poultry and indicate that the animal has been allowed access to the outside. The USDA regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside. Oftentimes there might be a tiny door in the corner of a huge crammed space that the chickens don’t regularly have access to.
Hormone-Free: Hormones are not legally allowed in the raising of hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones” follows it.
Organic: There are regulations to govern what can be called “organic”. In relation to poultry, the term organic refers only to the feed they receive. The chickens must be fed organic feed (grown without commercial fertilizers or pesticides), and not given hormones or antibiotics. This has nothing to do with how they are treated.
Pasture-Raised: According to the USDA Trade Descriptions, “birds are raised outdoors using movable enclosures located on grass and fed an organic diet (without hormones or non-organic additives) and/or raised without antibiotics (drugs that are intended to prevent or treat animal illnesses)”.