Free Range

If you’re like me, you read food labels. You reach for items with words like “organic”, “free range”, “cage free”, and “all natural” but do you know what these words mean? Over the last month I’ve visited a number of various farms (poultry, beef, pork, veal, etc.) and I’m learning that when stamped on our food, these words do not line up with the images in our minds or even basic dictionary definitions.

So let’s think about “free range”. I picture chickens in a pasture or amongst trees while scratching the dirt, eating bugs and bits of green growth. Now that I think of it, that’s not just my imagination. The egg carton is actually printed with this idyllic picture. Do you know what “free range” actually means in the American food industry? According to the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms website, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”

This does not mean that the birds have actually spent any time out of doors, ranging as they’d say, or that they have adequate space when they are inside. Here’s one image from an English free range barn. I have a feeling that it looks extremely different (worse?) in the United States.

So what do you do? As far as I can tell, the biggest way to find honesty in our food system is to buy from farmers and food producers that you’ve met. It may be today’s catchphrase, but “buying local” really is something. Because of the size of their production, small farmers may not have certified labels on their food, but chances are they’ll answer your questions honestly and maybe even let you come see the farm.