When I took a trip to the UK, I was delighted to discover that the Sainsbury's (a national grocery chain) near my lodging featured housebrand eggs that were not only organic, but free-range as well. Me being me, I was just happy to have that extra option, albeit at a slightly higher price. In the end, I just walked out with a carton of regular eggs. However, would it have been a better choice if I had chosen the free-range eggs instead?
Let me go on record for saying this: I can't tell the difference in taste between free-range and regular chicken and eggs. It could be just me, or the fact that I've abused my taste buds with years of hot sauce experimentation, but I can't distinguish between the two in terms of taste.
The appeals of free-range farming methods for most are more ethical than anything else. Free-range denotes a method of farming husbandry where animals are, for at least a few hours, allowed to roam freely outside of their usual confines. For chickens, that means the opportunity to escape the cramped spaces of their pens and take a stroll outside, like regular animals usually do.
This benefits chickens in a variety of ways:
- They get more exercise, instead of being cooped up all day long
- They get to supplement their diet with insects and worms, which should be their natural diet, as opposed to the cheaper soy and grain-based feed they're usually given
- They get copious amounts of vitamin D3 from the sun.
In the end, the focus is primarily on the chicken's health. A healthier chicken would logically produce healthier eggs and provide healthier meat. And those benefits are directly transferred to you, the consumer. But how much of that is true?
While the label “free-range” certainly paints a rosy picture for some (chickens living outdoors with plenty of fresh air), things may not be all they're cracked up to be. In terms of nutrition, a published study showed no significant differences between eggs laid by free-range and conventionally-raised chickens.
The real trouble lies with the fact that there remain a number of loopholes to the legal definition of free-range. Regulation states that the free-range label can only apply if the animal is provided access to the outdoors. In other words, access can be restricted to as little as five minutes and it would still qualify as free-range.
Range density is another issue. While territories within the EU and Australia define free-range as having a maximum number of chickens per hectare of land, the USA has no such regulation. There is also no real standard to which the quality of the range can be held to; a simple dirt patch can still qualify as a range in some states. Despite the humane picture behind the “free-range” label, some countries still allow the practice of de-beaking or beak-trimming to be performed.
Despite the debacle, this doesn't necessarily mean that free-range is nothing but hogwash. The concept is a sound one; it's the execution and implementation that hasn't been taken seriously. Thankfully, there are companies that have taken the idea to heart, choosing to farm chickens in a much more humane fashion. One can only hope that as this trend grows, it will slowly become the new standard in the egg-farming industry.
Anderson, K. E. (2011), “Comparison of fatty acid, cholesterol, and vitamin A and E composition in eggs from hens housed in conventional cage and range production facilities”, Poultry Science, 90(7), 1600-1608
Choice (n. d.), “What Free Range Eggs Meet The Model Code”. Retrieved from: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/meat-fish-and-eggs/eggs/articles/what-free-range-eggs-meet-the-model-code