What Does Cage Free Really Mean? The Life of a Cage Free Chicken

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cage free

We’ve all seen or heard the phrase “Cage Free” somewhere, probably in the grocery store. But what does cage free actually mean? Is it any different from Free Range? Here’s what you should know about what you’re really getting from cage free (and free range) chicken and eggs.

Your everyday broiler chicken

Here’s a fact: more than 9 billion (that’s a b, folks) chickens are slaughtered in the US each year (50 billion chickens are slaughtered worldwide, each year). And chickens are also asked to keep up with the high demand of egg consumption in this country, and worldwide, making them a pivotal part of our own existence. Chances are that you, reading this, will have consumed something chicken-related today.

That high demand means that some former standards of living (through the 1950s) have gone out the window. In order to keep up with demand, factory-farming industries have had to design environments for maximum efficiency and profit, meaning that the idyllic farm lifestyle of chickens is far from a reality.

Broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) often live in one small house with thousands of other chickens, with less than one square foot to call their own. Also, unless specified when you buy the meat, chances are that a broiler chicken is the result of serious genetic mutations in order to increase the bird’s body size (which results in skeletal issues and deformities).

These oversized and overcrowded birds do what most of us would do in tight quarters – they get annoyed at each other and have been known to peck their neighbors. Here’s the solution some farmers created: debeaking.

The process the birds go to from cooped up living space to your plate is rather traumatic. It can include hanging birds upside down, dumping them into a bath of electrified water (to stun them), then moving the birds to a blade that cuts their throat. Once they are bled out, the chickens are dumped into a bath of scalding hot water to remove their feathers. If all is done well and efficiently, nearly 8,500 chickens can be slaughtered each hour in one facility. But this process is far from perfect. Witnesses have often seen chickens come back to consciousness prior to having their throats cuts. It’s also been witnessed that the blade miscuts, and the chickens are plunged into the hot water alive.

But, at least in the end, the chicken is put out of his misery. You can’t say the same for the egg-laying hens.

Egg-laying hens

Some 300 million hens regularly lay eggs here in the US. Most of these hens (95%) get roughly 67 square inches of space, which isn’t enough space for them to stand up straight. A hen would need 300 inches just to spread and flap her wings. Cages of hens are kept atop one another, meaning that excrement can and does fall from one crate, to another. This results in ammonia burns to the hens’ eyes (this ammonia burn can be found in broiler chickens as well).

The hens have no room to preen, and bathe, nor even instinctively nest for their eggs, and they are usually debeaked. Male chicks are useless in the egg-laying world, and they haven’t been genetically modified to cut it in the broiler world (lucky them), so they’re usually ground up or gassed.

Hens live under conditions that stimulate production. Longer daylight is simulated to encourage laying. This constant egg production steals calcium from the hens’ bones, thus the hens end up with osteoporosis and in serious pain. They also rub up against the sides of crates and their feet are ripped apart by the wired floors. These hens become nothing more than egg-laying machines. As a result, hens typically live for no more than 2 years before their bodies give out. They can’t produce eggs the same way, so they’re either shipped out to become animal feed, or occasionally human food.

Cage Free and Free Range

The situations noted above are just small examples of the life of a chicken, which is why many people pledge to eat cage free and free range. But what do those terms actually mean?

Cage free: Cage free means just that: no cage. The only stipulation a farmer has to agree to in order to label something cage free is to remove the “cage” idea from the equation. Chickens and hens that are cage free can still live in poor, and overcrowded conditions. There’s no square-foot-per-chicken requirement, so these birds can still live in cage-like environments, but in reality, their lives are at least slightly better than a caged-bird’s life.

Free range: Close your eyes and think of free range. What do you see? I know what you see: an endless expanse of land, where mommy and daddy chickens are playing bridge while little Betty Sue and Junior Chicken are off playing hopscotch with the neighbor’s kids. Eh, not so. In order to be “free range,” a chicken needs to have access to the outdoors, that’s it. That space could be the equivalent of the space a caged-bird has in a coop. So long as a chicken can breathe in the air, she’s free range.

 Some Good Eggs in the Bunch

Cage free and free range are hot topics these days. People are willing to spend a little extra to feel like their food is coming from a happier place. But many farms are taking advantage of that naivety and only living up to the bare minimum of standards required for either of these labels. When a chicken still has very little room to move (and is still, potentially, debeaked), then in reality the general public is being cheated, although legally they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

Some farms, however, know what the consumer wants and expects when they buy cage free or free range products. They actually give their birds a cage free and free range life, where space is enjoyed and chickens can live a quasi-normal life. But these farms are, in reality, hard to come by. When you do find them, you’ll know it, because the final product is likely to be more expensive. When you find a cage free or free range product that is only cents more than your “normal” food product, there’s a strong chance that the chickens where this farm came from don’t have that much better of a life (if at all) from their non-cage-free brethren.

Should you stop eating chicken or eggs? It’s been my opinion that food is one of the most personal choices one can make. You literally are what you eat, thus no one should have a say in what you consume. It’s up to you what you think is right or wrong in your food consumption choices. But it is important for you, as a consumer, to know what you’re putting inside your body. If you do choose cage free and free range products in order to make a difference, you should know that chances are you’re being duped.

Fine, then how can I eat without feeling guilty?

In a word (or two): Food Cooperatives like Localharvest.org or other local farm groups. Buying local is always a plus, because you support local farmers, and reduce carbon emissions. But you also get to meet the folks who give you your food. If you think that the Perdues you see on TV actually spend anytime with chickens, you’re gravely mistaken. Check out local farmers’ organizations to see if they offer direct-to-consumer food.