What Does "Free Range" Really Mean?

These chickens don't always have the freedom you imagine

free-range chickens on the farm
••• Bas Meelker/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The term "free range" refers to food from animals that have access to outdoor spaces. It can also refer to animals who have free access to graze or forage for food.

However, although the term "free range" brings to mind wide open spaces with animals living in nature, eating natural foods, and soaking in the sunlight, there are no government regulations in place in the U.S. to ensure this is the case. Therefore, it's important for producers to be clear about what they mean when they say their food is free range.

In addition, while all organically raised food is automatically free range (certified organic standards require this), all food raised free range is not necessarily organic.

Synonyms for free range include free roaming, cage free, and pasture raised.

Free-Range Chicken Legal Terminology

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined the term "free range" only for chickens, not for eggs or for other livestock, such as cattle.

For chickens to be free range, the birds must be "allowed access to the outside," according to the USDA. In practice, this can mean the chickens live most of their lives outdoors, retreating to their coop only when weather or other factors require them to do so, or it can mean the chickens spend all their time in cramped, indoor pens that have a small door opened to the outside for just a few minutes each day.

Obviously, there's a huge difference between these two scenarios in terms of organic farming and humanely raised poultry, but either scenario meets the USDA definition.

Because the USDA rules for free-range products don't apply to other animals, or even to eggs, the free-range label on those goods is legally meaningless—producers can use the label in any way they want. Again, it can mean the animals spent most of their lives in wide, outdoor spaces, or it can mean they occasionally got a glimpse of the sun through a small door, but never went outside themselves.

The Certified Humane Program

There is one organization certifying farms for free-range chicken. If poultry is certified free range as part of the Humane Farm Animal Care's (HFAC) Certified Humane program, it means the chickens spend at least six hours a day outdoors (weather permitting) and have pens with at least two square feet per bird. The Certified Humane program covers a variety of issues beyond free-range designations as well.

"Pasture-raised" HFAC certification (also an adjunct to the organization's Certified Humane certification) requires 108 square feet per bird, and for the chickens to be outdoors year-round in rotating fields, with shelter only to protect them from inclement weather or predators.

Free-Range Organic Foods

Consumers who want truly free-range foods should consider buying certified organic products, since unlike the USDA's definition and enforcement of the term "free range," certified organic products must meet stringent criteria. For example, a farm falsely claiming free-range status for its chickens will not likely get into trouble, but a farm falsely claiming organic certification will be faced with major penalties and fines.

Producers who wish to meet consumer demand and raise their ethical standards for raising farm animals may need to put in extra effort to meet organic standards, but it will help them communicate truthfully and accurately with consumers. While it's true there are loopholes even in organic regulations, at least organic certification provides a more clear definition for a frequently misused term. At the very least, pursuing HFAC certification shows adherence to a specific definition of free range.