Okay, maybe this is another rant against the industrial food complex, but I was brought up to stand up for what is right and not to sit back when someone was in trouble. My parents raised all of their kids to treat everyone equally regardless of skin color or religion. Besides, I like to think of it as educational more than just a rant.
We all know that our food supply has many flaws, often we get to read about the major events when they happen. What we don't get to read about unless you dig deep is the smaller stuff. Like how the IFC is able to sell chickens labeled as "free-range" even though the chicken has never been outside on grass, ever! I got to give them credit, it takes a certain kind of sleaze to take a regulation that is meant to be beneficial to the consumer and use it against them.
On their website the USDA defines free range or free roaming thusly: Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.
Now to you and I that means the chicken should be outside on grass. The USDA has found that there are broiler houses that hold tens of thousands of chickens that are being labeled and sold as free range even though they have never been outside. Why? Because the houses have a door at one end and they can open them to the outside. It doesn't matter that the door opens up to a cement pad or to dirt or the best case, grass. Never mind the area outside wasn't large enough to hold all 10,000 birds; the producers will tell you they meet the USDA definition.
I've only been raising layers for the last three years. I am not a knowledge expert by any means. What I do know is that we get chicks at a day old, raise them indoors until they can handle the weather outside, usually 8-10 weeks. We move them to a moveable house that has no bottom and is surrounded by an electrified fence. The fence is to keep predators out not the chickens in. They can fly the coop, if you will, pretty easy. As they get older they hardly ever do. They get in a routine and it doesn't seem to change.
Most broilers are processed between 12 and 15 weeks of age. The sooner a broiler is processed the more tender the meat. 10,000 birds raised in a closed environment will remain in a closed environment when a single door is open. It's not like the door is a garage door either, the USDA found that some of these houses had one door leading to, you guessed it, a cement pad.
The USDA is changing the rule because the IFC took advantage of the current regulation by calling housed chickens free range. What we've read and commented on from the USDA helps to clearly define FREE RANGE. Until the new regulations are put into affect the monoliths that feed the IFC will continue to label and sell housed chickens as free range.
You're asking "now what? How do I know which company really has free range chickens or chickens just labeled as free range? It is easier than you think. Just buy local. Find a farmer that raises free range chickens in your area. Go to the farm, talk to them and see for yourself what their free range practices are. LocalHarvest has a great search tool to find them.
Your buying habits will need to change somewhat in that you won't be able to just go there and buy a chicken, you might, and it depends on the farm. In some cases you'll need to order the bird before hand and you might need to buy in quantity in order to have chicken whenever you want. The trade off is you get fresh, tasty, real free range chickens and eggs. If you don't believe me, buy a store bought chicken and a local free range chicken. Cook them the same and give your family and friends a blind taste test. Not only is it a fun activity you'll get to see for yourself through others taste buds.
BUY LOCAL - from a farmer, not from a chain hard selling the fact.