free range chicken flockIt’s pretty fashionable to hear a grocery store or restaurant tout their chickens as “free range” as much as possible. Somehow we’ve associated “free range” with “fresh” and somewhere along the line a lot has gotten lost in translation. A lot of customers don’t really know what the terms means anymore, and it would appear that very few farmers do either. Here’s what you should know regarding the “free range” craze currently happening.

The classic vision of a free range chicken brings up visions of dozens of chickens frolicking in a wide open grass field, leaping and dancing as the whole world is their coop. Traditionally, the real honest free range lifestyle isn’t far from this. Many farms, typically of the local variety, prefer to fence off the boarders of their farm and then just let their chickens come and go at their leisure, knowing that given the option, the hens will find their way back to the coop and night and around to the feed during meal times.

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that “free range” as the government regulates it only demands that any food chickens wishing to be considered free range cannot be kept exclusively in a cage. In a sense, they aren’t technically kept in a cage. In actuality, many large corporation farms get around this little snag by making the entire building one large cage, so that while the hens are technically “free range,” it’s in name only. They’re still packed in to wing to wing with barely enough room to move about and with little if any contact with the outside. And remember, according to the laws governing “free range,” this counts.

The hard part is, unless you can see the farm yourself, there’s no really way for you to know for sure one way or another. Regulating the farms only demands that the chickens not be raised in confined cages, so the aforementioned crammed building is considered okay. As a consumer, all you can really do is hop online and see what you can find, though the simplest and safest bet is to go with something that comes from a farm nearby, or more specifically, a farm nearby that doesn’t happen to be part of Tyson or another huge brand. Also, there’s been a common trend that farms in the Pacific Northwest tend to fall closer to the “free range” archetype we usually think of, though much of that is anecdotal.

A lot of this comes down to you as a consumer being informed about the usual buzz words on food. “Free range” rarely means anything close to what you think it does, just as “fat free” doesn’t mean the item is free of calories or “real fruit juice” doesn’t mean that the entirety of the bottle is fruit juice. There’s always a little spin with marketing and advertising, so be smart and aware when you’re shopping. Otherwise, the only way to be completely sure is to raise the chickens yourself.

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