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Free Range and Organic Chicken: What's the Difference?

Melissa J. Murphy

With an increase in consumer health awareness comes an increase in unfamiliar or poorly defined terminology relating to healthy aspects of food. We have probably all heard of "free range" and "organic" chicken, but what exactly do those terms refer to specifically? To answer that question, let us first examine how chickens are farmed commercially.

How Chicken Farms Operate

Currently, traditional techniques used to raise poultry for meat and eggs focuses on intensive farming practices. Although this technique produces a greater quantity of product than other farming practices do, wary consumers are now questioning the overall quality of the products as well as the inhumanity of raising animals in this manner. The main function of this type of farming is to grow as many chickens as possible in a very small space in a short amount of time. This involves a massively overcrowded environment in commercial chicken houses.

For example, laying hens are often required to live their entire lives in a space about the size of a standard sheet of notebook paper. The standard feed given to these chickens is laced with artificial growth enhancers including antibiotics as well as anti-microbial drugs which contain small amounts of arsenic. These types of feed are necessary to help prevent the outbreak of diseases caused by the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in which the chickens are kept. The lingering antibiotics and other chemical compounds fed to chickens are detectable in meat and eggs on grocery store shelves and the long-term effect on humans has not yet been determined.

Free Range Chickens

As the name suggests, free range or cage free chickens are chickens which are raised in an environment that allows them to roam in a larger area. Free range chickens have the opportunity to be exposed to more natural surroundings and are generally healthier than intensively farmed chickens. The term, "free range", however, does not mean that they are not fed growth stimulants. Farmers that use free range methods often continue to feed chickens the same substances that mass productions farmers use in order to get higher yields and faster turnaround times, thus increasing profit margins.

Organic Chicken

The reference to "organic" chicken means that the chicken is fed only natural food - corn, for example - and no antibiotics. Only when the terms "organic" and "free range" are used together can the consumer be sure that chickens are eating food that is normal for them and that they are developing in the environment that nature intended.

With these clarifications also comes a better understanding of why organic, free range chicken is more expensive. It takes more time and space to raise livestock in a natural setting, but the health benefits in the long run are sure to be worth the extra investment.


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