Free Range Is Not Pastured Poultry

This an edited version of a blog post by Mike Badger that first appeared at Mother Earth News.

When a person approaches the APPPA booth at a trade show or calls the office, one of my routine screening questions  “Are you raising poultry on pasture now?” Many times, I get an affirmative response, but the person substitutes free-range for pasture.

What Does ‘Free-Range’ Mean?

I know you may not see the problem. Who can argue with free-range? But I’m not a member of the American Free-range Poultry Association. And there’s good reason for that. The commercial poultry industry's (including organic) implementation of free-range is anything but ideal, and it typically violates the visual of a flock of chickens foraging across an open range. It has about as much meaning as the “natural” label.

Yes, I’m talking about free-range CAFO chickens and turkeys, and it’s a real problem that the confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) get away with labeling their products as free-range with nothing more than access to the outside. There is no mandate to make the birds go outside.

The marketing problem of pasture-raised versus free-range is a very simple one, and people who produce poultry and people who eat poultry should do well to understand the nuances. Free-range is a USDA label which means the birds have access to the outdoors, and consequently they aren’t raised in cages. That’s a broad definition, and it’s abused by the large poultry integrators with a government sanctioned loop hole. 

Free-range implies a bird on range or pasture, but pasture or outdoors is not actually required or enforced. This is a fundamental deceit in the free range organic chicken, turkey, or eggs that you buy from commercial poultry brands. 

In some cases, a CAFO organic broiler might not get access to the outdoors until they are six weeks old. That’s move out day for most of those young meat birds.

Are Free-Range or Pasture Raised Chicken and Eggs More Nutritious?

From the broiler nutritional study APPPA conducted in 2013, I sampled a non-organic free-range CAFO broiler along with another free-range organic CAFO broiler for some comparative numbers. There were several key differences compared to the pastured samples. The pastured samples showed elevated levels of vitamins D and E, whereas the free-range samples were negligible. Depending on the feed type, the pasture-raised samples had an omega 6:3 ration of 3:1 (non-soy feed) or 8:1 (soy feed) compared to 11:1 for the two free-range CAFO samples I purchased for the test. Vitamins D and E and the omega profiles are a few of the often-cited differences in grass-based production systems.

Producing Pastured Poultry is More Than Chicken

Going through the expense and labor of producing small flocks on pasture demands a different descriptor than the watered down free-range reality. Joel Salatin gave us that label in the 1990’s. It’s called pastured poultry, and it embodies the difference between the CAFO chicken and the local pasture-raised kind.

I typically boil pasture-raised down to a very simple idea. The birds move through the green grass (pasture) frequently and in a deliberate way.

Pastured Poultry Buying Advice to Customers

The best way to ensure you get what you want is to shop someplace where you can ask the farmer questions because relying on a label alone to authenticate your purchase can be a deceiving game. I’d recommend you look for pastured poultry farmers in your community.

Pastured poultry will live a majority of its life on pasture and will be rotated to fresh green grass in a managed (i.e., deliberate) way that benefits the bird, the land, the community, and the eater.

Ask for pasture-raised. Buy pasture-raised poultry from a farmer near you.

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Pastured Poultry Difference

With constant access to fresh pasture, pastured poultry is better for the chickens, the land, and the people. 

Pastured poultry:

  • connects you to the face behind the food.
  • turns manure into an asset that builds fields, soils and wildlife ecology.
  • imparts a deeper flavor and firmer texture.
  • reduces the need for antibiotics, medications, and coccidiastats. 
  • harnesses the good things about nature.
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