Monday, 17 October 2011

How Free is Free?

Article first published as How Free Is Free? on Technorati.

Purchasing products labelled as "free range" may be giving you a false sense of them being the healthier choice over those that do not bear the free range designation. We are slowly being trained, well, you could almost approach the term "brainwashed," into believing that purchasing free range products such as eggs or chickens are obviously the healthier choice. Why not? It sounds like it is a more natural, humane alternative to the way that we have in our minds eye of the way caged farm animals are kept.

We hear "free range" and instantly think of the animals roaming through lush, green fields, laying in the sun and feasting on grass and their natural foods - not kept in cages in barns and eating bagged feeds. How absolutely naive we are! That picture is far from the reality, in fact, in most cases, the animals are subject to the same standards as their non-free range relatives.

According to the USDA definition of "free range", it states verbatim and in it's entirety that "producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." Not much of an all-encompassing definition is that? Let's consider a 25,000 square foot barn with a single opening at one end which is just large enough for a single chicken at a time to pass through. How many birds could actually take advantage of having access to the outdoors during the course of a day? How many of them would even realize that there even IS a door to go through? After all, they are not led outside - the door is simply left open.

The definition does not require that they actually go outside, but only that they have access. This was confirmed through a telephone call that I placed to the regulatory agency governing the law. They stated that a producer can put in an opening to the outside, leave that door open for 5 minutes a day and voila', the criteria for being free range is fulfilled and "free range" can now be stamped on their products. Of course, with a free range designate on their products, the cost to the consumer goes up accordingly. That in itself gives us the impression that it must be the healthier choice. Natural products are more commonly more expensive than non-natural products. One only has to look at "organic" foods to realize that!

It is unfortunate that we have been programmed to envision free range being a healthier alternative. It has a healthier sounding name therefore it MUST be better, right? Wrong. The birds may be fed the same feed that non-free range birds are fed. The birds may be subject to the same indoor living conditions. They may be raised, kept, fed and cared for in the same way as non-free range birds. The fact is that even once outside, the grounds could very well be gravel, concrete or a tennis court for that matter - even though the first thought that comes into our minds is a lush, green feeding ground.

As always, I will provide you with the down-to-the-nitty-gritty facts, and you can decide for yourself which way you want to go. I'm not saying that they most definitely aren't healthier, just that quite possibly, they are exactly the same as the non-free range product. As with most every single product on the market available to the consumer, the producers bottom line is their cost and profit. If they can do something with a minimal cost (such as leaving a door open) that will increase their profits, they most likely will. Manufacturers and producers are profit driven - that almighty dollar is the prize in the sky. If they are meeting the definition of "free range," and can charge more for their product...well, the dollar is mightier than the conscience.

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