In the past few decades, chicken meat has become increasingly popular not only because it contains less fat than beef or pork but also because it is more affordable. So, when you think about a chicken farm do you envision a place with plenty of space, with no chicken fences or rules so that the birds roam freely and are treated well? Think again.
As sad as this may seem, being a chicken in the 21st century isn’t great because most of these birds are grown in crammed spaces with little to no direct sunlight exposure and endure hard treatments to end up on our dinner table.
If you care about the environment and, most importantly, about all the animals living on it, perhaps you’re thinking of alternative ways to improve the lives of chickens raised at chicken farms. You could start by choosing to purchase only organic products that come from free-range, certified sources but this means you must know first what all of these labels mean.
What are the labels saying?
If you shop from supermarkets, whole stores or from your local farmer market, you most probably have encountered different labels placed on your poultry meat or eggs. Battery cage, cage-free, free-range, and organic represent the most common categories used to determine the origins of a certain product.
There is also a considerable price difference between these categories, with organic products being the most expensive. However, around 97% of egg-laying hens in the United States are kept in battery cages, which forces them to lay eggs on fast-forward, interfering with their natural egg-laying cycle. Let’s take a closer look into each of these labels and find out exactly what they mean.
As previously mentioned, most of the eggs consumed in the United States come from so-called battery-cage farms where chickens are used on an industrial scale with little to no concern for their health or needs.
Each battery contains 5 to 10 birds, with the minimum standard of space imposed by national authorities of 67 square inches per bird. By comparison, an organic chicken usually walks freely on at least 3-4 square meters and has access to fresh air and direct sunlight on a daily basis.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that eggs farmed from battery-cage chickens are of low quality. They are more or less artificially created, often leading to the chick’s exhaustion and death. Most chickens are not allowed to rest after one egg-laying cycle is complete, which won’t only cause stress but also severe pain and illnesses in the long term.
They don’t have a place where to retire and they don’t benefit from the privacy they require when laying eggs. Although there are other less harmful variations of the battery cages, none of them allows the chickens to get out of their cages, stretch their legs, roam freely, enjoy the fresh air or the natural sunlight.
They are also fed with vitamins and nutrients above their daily requirements to be able to lay more eggs or grow up faster to be slaughtered.
You may think that “cage-free” birds enjoy long and happy lives, right? We’re sorry to disappoint but they aren’t much better than battery-caged chickens.
However, there is a difference when we’re talking about broiler chickens (breeds usually raised for their meat), and egg-laying hens.
Cage-free might come as a deceiving label for broiler chickens because it sounds like a better option from what you usually expect in battery-raised birds. The thing is that broiler chickens almost never live up in cages, even if we’re talking about industrial farms.
Instead, they live in large barns, often overcrowded, with little to no room to move, stretch their legs or feathers, and rest properly. Industrial farms are raising broiler chickens for their meat, so it is in their interest to raise them faster. Living conditions aren’t amongst the factors industrial farms take into account when it comes to their birds, and this is why most of them end up sick and unhappy.
Most often, the standards of these industrial farms are poor so chickens require preventive antibiotics just to get them through the months before being considered “fit” to be sent for slaughter.
As for egg-laying hens, there seems to be little improvement from battery cages. Chickens don’t live in cages but this doesn’t mean they have too much space either. In fact, the barns in which these egg-laying chickens live are prone to similar issues faced by broiled chickens, and this includes overcrowding, low-quality feed, and poor environmental conditions.
Many producers are still opting for cruel methods to speed up a hen’s natural egg-laying process, forcing the birds to continue laying eggs outside their natural cycles. To add to the problem, there aren’t any standards these farmers must comply to in order to be able to label their eggs and meat as “cage-free”, meaning there isn’t a local or national authority that can verify if these standards are met and chickens live, in fact, outside cages.
One common misconception people have regarding free-range chickens is that all of these birds and their eggs are organic. In reality, some of the birds are still treated with hormones and antibiotics, substances that will later end up in our bodies after we eat the eggs or the poultry.
As opposed to battery and cage-free standards, free-range chickens do enjoy improved living conditions. They have outdoor access at least some of the time so they can feel the fresh air and the actual sun rays on their feathers. On a psychological level, free-range chickens tend to be less stressed, which means their meat and the eggs are of superior quality.
Free-range chickens also receive higher-quality feed and better nutrition by being able to pick up some of the food on their own (think about worms and food scraps). However, they are easily exposed to parasites, diseases, and bacterial infections, which means they require regular vet checkups and treatments based on antibiotics.
The last label on the list says “organic” and you’ll be pleased to know that it is tightly regulated. Currently, only around 10% of the total poultry farms on the American territory are considered organic, which means they are the only ones entitled to sell products with this label. Obviously, the cost of products is higher but you’ll also have access to high-quality meat and eggs, free of hormones and antibiotics.
In organic farms, chickens must be free-range, meaning they have to spend some of their time outdoors. Also, their diet should be entirely organic, based on high-quality ingredients, as well as insects and worms. They shouldn’t be fed synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, chemicals or any other substances considered dangerous to humans.
However, organic chickens aren’t always pasture-raised. The latter means that the birds spend most of their time outdoors, roaming around the farm, and have access to a natural diet based on worms, insects, food scraps, and grains. They aren’t confined in aviaries or cages.