The terms free range, grass fed, and cage free are used in two main contexts: federal standards for the identification and labeling of agricultural products and consumer advertising. The terms may be applied to eggs or dairy products as well as meat or poultry.
The terms are often associated with sustainable agriculture or the so-called alternative agriculture movement. Farmers or ranchers who practice free-range animal husbandry typically do so for one or more of five major reasons:
Terms like free range, grass fed, and cage free are used by advertisers to make food products more appealing to consumers. Several reasons motivate people to buy these products. They want animals that are raised in a natural manner, preferring animals raised on grass rather than corn. They want food from animals that were not given antibiotics or hormones; and they do not want to eat food that was treated with pesticides.
Concern about the humane treatment of animals and poultry is another motivation for these consumers. Cage-free eggs come from hens that do not live in battery cages, stacked cages where each bird is in an area approximately the size of a small laptop computer. The quarters are so cramped that the hens cannot spread their wings.
Other terms used to label food include “pastured” and “organic.”
Free-range animal husbandry and pastured poultry raising are not new; they are the way that animals were raised for food products for millennia, until the 1950s, when factory farming was introduced as a way to maximize livestock and poultry production within a limited amount of space. Pastured poultry raising and free-range animal husbandry gained a new popularity in the United States beginning in the 1980s with Joel Salatin, a farmer in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Salatin's system was based on feeding his livestock healthy grass and moving the cattle from one field to another for fresh forage rather than feeding them corn in a central location. After the cattle were moved from a specific pasture, chickens in portable coops were brought in behind them to live on grubs and other insects in the cow droppings. The chicken droppings were then used to fertilize the fields so that no chemical fertilizers were necessary to maintain the condition of the land.
Free range is sometimes misleading when applied to cattle, as it does not specify what the animals are fed. Many ranchers prefer the term grass fed, which indicates that their animals' primary lifelong diet is pasture grass rather than the concentrated mixture of grain, soy, and other supplements used in the feedlot method of raising cattle for the last three to four months of their lives. Some poultry farmers prefer the term pastured poultry to cage free on the grounds that it is a more accurate description of the fact that the birds are given pasture forage as their source of food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service National Organic Program website has labeling definitions that will help consumers understand the information on labels. These definitions include:
The cattle inventory in 2011 consisted of 92,582,400 animals, according to the USDA. The total included 30.9 million beef cows and 26.7 million feeder calves. There were 742,000 herds, with 90% of herds consisting of less than 100 cows. Herd size averaged 44 head of cattle.
In 2012, 61 egg-producing companies with over 1 million hens (layers) represented approximately 87% of the total production in the United States, and cage-free production accounted for only 5.7% of U.S. flock size. Of those cage-free operations, 2.9% were organic. The amount of free-range layers tracked by United Egg Producers (UEP), an organization representing approximately 95% of the egg-laying ownership in the country, has increased gradually. An August 12, 2007 New York Times article cited UEP statistics indicating that the amount of free-range hens was close to 5% in 2007, up from 2% a few years before that. At that time, businesses including Ben & Jerry's, Burger King, Whole Foods, Google, and chef Wolfgang Puck were implementing cage-free egg policies.
Some businesses were motivated by public attitudes about the humane treatment of poultry, as well as pressure from organizations opposed to battery cages, such as the Humane Society of the United States.
Research has indicated that meat, dairy products, poultry, and eggs from animals fed grass diets are lower in fat and cholesterol than animals fed grain-based diets. Grass-fed food also has more health benefits, according to studies, including findings from California State University in Chico. That study, described in a 2010 Nutrition Journal article, evaluated three decades of research into the comparisons of grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
The research showed that in addition to healthier levels of fats and cholesterol, beef from animals fed grass throughout their lives provided more of vitamins E and A and higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an acid that may help to fight cancer and reduce the risk of cancer and other health-related conditions. In addition, grass-fed beef is a better source of omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef. However, the omega-3 levels in beef are lower than those found in salmon and other fatty fish.
Some of those findings echoed research in a 2006 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The study stated that meat from grass-fed cattle was typically leaner (lower fat content) and lower in calories than meat from feedlot-fed cattle and also had a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids.
Meat from free-range chickens is reported to be chewier and less tender than meat from factory-farmed chickens, but it is lower in saturated fatty acids and higher in polyunsaturated fatty acids.
In some cases, consumers may need to verify that food products labeled as free range, grass fed, or cage free are what they claim to be. Other precautions include standard procedures for the selection, safe storage, and safe preparation of perishable foods. These precautions are particularly necessary in the case of eggs, whose shells may be contaminated by Salmonella bacteria, a common source of food poisoning. However, cage-free or free-range poultry pose no higher risk than poultry raised using other methods.
When people observe safe food-handling practices, there are usually no negative interactions when consuming free-range or grass-fed food, or when eating eggs from cage-free birds. While some people may be allergic to eggs, this allergy is to eggs in general and is not related to how the animals were raised.
There may be a lower level of standardization in the taste and overall quality of free-range food products; that is, poultry or meat produced by a small farmer may not taste exactly the same each time it is purchased, or it may take slightly more or less time to cook. There is also the risk of food poisoning or other zoonosis if these foods are not stored or prepared properly; however, the risk is no higher with free-range foods than with food products produced using other methods.
Parents may learn that their child has an allergy to eggs and will need to monitor the child's diet. However, the allergy is not related to whether the eggs are from cage-free hens or those raised in battery cages.
Relatively little research has been done on free-range or pasture-fed animals or food products comparing them to their factory farm counterparts, most likely because direct comparisons are complicated by the number of variables (size of operation; geographic location, including altitude and the type of grass used for forage; specific breeds of animals involved, etc.). Another factor that makes direct comparisons difficult is that consumers appear to take ethical and other values into consideration when choosing food products from free-range or grass-fed animals, and these intangible concerns are harder to measure in a clinical study than nutrient values.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics takes the position that research indicates that nutrient values appear to be similar for organic and conventional grains and vegetable crops, but that “more research is required to address systematically whether significant differences exist in nutrient content of organic and conventional produce, grain, meat and dairy products.” The report produced by the UCS in 2006 also called for further research into the nutrient values of grass-fed meat and dairy products compared to those from factory-farmed animals.
See also Cancer ; Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids ; Vitamins .
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Revised by Liz Swain