Talking about free-range chicken might bring to mind a quaint old farm with hens and turkeys strutting around a tree-shaded barnyard. But think again: the realities of industrial poultry production are very different.
Unlike the term "USDA Organic," which can only be applied to foods that meet exacting guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the use of the term "free-range" is less strict. Any chickens that have regular access to an outdoor area -- a patch of cement or a small, fenced gravel yard -- can be called free-range. Even if a bird gets just five minutes of outdoor time a day, she qualifies as a free-range chicken.
But having access to the outdoors doesn't mean the chicken actually went outdoors -- some birds stay inside and rarely if ever see the sun. (And the USDA does not recognize the term "free-range" as applying to eggs, only to chickens, turkeys and other poultry.)
Free-Range Chickens and Turkeys: Who's Minding the Henhouse?
There's conflicting information about how rigorously the USDA inspects free-range chickens and turkeys. The USDA website states that in order for poultry to be labeled free-range or free-roaming, "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." That's it. How often, and how strictly, the USDA inspects chickens' outdoor access is anyone's guess.
Despite these facts, some advocates of free-range chicken and turkey insist the products are more nutritious. But when it comes to safety, commercial chicken might actually be healthier. A 2005 report in the Journal of Food Protection found that in some cases, salmonella contamination was actually higher in free-range chickens than in ordinary birds. Environmental toxins in free-range poultry might be higher, too, since the feed that birds eat outdoors is totally unregulated.
Organic Chicken or Freerange Chicken: The Cheep Alternative
As far as other labels and marketing gimmicks go, "natural chicken" or "natural turkey," as defined by the USDA, means the product has "no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed." Hormones are not allowed in poultry, so the label "No hormones added" means nothing.
In short, if you're looking for a greener product, skip the free-range turkey, free-range chicken and other poultry -- and their marked-up price tags -- and head directly for the organic eggs, as these are the only ones that have strict, well-defined criteria for feed, antibiotics and processing.