Does “free-range”, “cage-free” or “locally raised” mean anything?

A long time ago, in a supermarket far far away, I was strolling down the dairy aisle when I came across “cage-free” eggs.  I can get behind that.  Chickens that aren’t confined.  Happy chickens.  Then I saw the term “free-range.”  Hot damn!!!  These chickens aren’t just cage-free!  They can roam free too!!  If only.  Little did I know that the terms “cage-free”, “free-range” and “locally raised” guarantee virtually nothing.

I had always heard rumors from people that these terms meant nothing.  “Nonsense!” I said.  They have to be treating these animals better.  It says so right on the package!  I was a stubborn self-proclaimed animal-rights vegetarian.  I wanted my eggs and cheese goddamn it!  And if these ingredients were politely taken from animals and they were allowed to live out the rest of their lives freely, then I was content.  The following picture is of a “cage-free” farm.

Then I began to do a little research.  And a little thinking.  Let’s look at the term “cage-free.”  According to their website, it is completely unrecognized by the USDA.¹ If you see this term on an egg carton, it means absolutely nothing.  There is no independent party to verify these conditions, let alone know what to even look for since there are no concrete guidelines.  They may increase the chicken’s living space from 67 inches (the typical battery-cage condition in which they spend their entire lives in a space smaller than a letter sized piece of paper, which is the majority of egg farms), but they still may never see the light of day while they are cooped up with thousands of other chickens in a warehouse or enclosed barn.  Because of these tight quarters with other chickens, there is an increase in fighting and the practice of debeaking is still prominent.  Debeaking is a painful process where they cut or burn off part of the bird’s beak without any sort of anesthetic.  Now let’s talk about chicks.  Since male chicks are of no profit to these farmers, they have been deemed useless, thus are either thrown into a grinder alive to be used as feed, tossed in a dumpster where they starve to death or suffocate, or gassed.  They get to spend no time with their mothers before being killed.  All of these acts and conditions are permitted with “cage-free” eggs.

“Free-range” has to be a little better, right?  Well, it’s “better” if you consider yard-time an appropriate reward for innocent prison inmates.  This yard time can consist of only 10 minutes.  Again, there are no USDA standards for “free-range” egg production.  And the only USDA standard I found for non-egg producing “free-range” chickens are this:  “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”² Pretty strict guidelines huh?  Also, there is no third-party agency auditing these farms.  In addition to debeaking, forced molting through starvation is also permitted.  What happens to chickens who no longer produce as many eggs as they once did?  They are either gassed, electrocuted or have their necks slit open to bleed out.  These methods are far from humane.  The following picture is of forced molting practices.  

Since these methods are prevalent with big factory farms, you may think that the only option is to go with “locally raised” products from smaller farms.  And while the conditions for the animals here are probably a little better, they are still slaughtered with similar (if not the same) methods many, many years before their time is up naturally.  Since they are viewed as products rather than living beings, they are disposed of when their yield has declined.  Farmers everywhere, whether they are bowing to the needs of corporations or just tend to their small family owned operations keep in mind one thing  that is of dire importance.  Money.  If their farm isn’t profitable, they have no business.  It is far too expensive to keep every chicken and cow that has stopped producing enough eggs or milk.  These “commodities” would be eating into their profit, literally.  The most cost-efficient thing to do is to kill them.  They are never viewed as anything but price tags.  And to tap into that profit even more, they’ve created a niche market for consumers who want to feel better about the animal products they consume.  This is why they’ve coined terms like “free-range” and “cage-free.”  To give consumers peace of mind.  Not animals.  All for a few extra pennies.

Am I against better practices or better welfare for animals?  Of course not.  I would much rather someone get raped as opposed to beaten and raped.  But the deeper problem lies not with the welfare of the animal we use for our means.  As long as animals are viewed as walking commodities, products for our ends, or profit, they will never be treated humanely.  You cannot simultaneously consume animals while saying you “care” about them.  It’s as simple as that.  If you truly care about the well-being of animals, the only sensible conclusion is to stop the exploitation.  Over 27 billion animals are brought into existence in the U.S. alone, only to be killed soon thereafter for food that is not only unnecessary, but unhealthy.

Waiting for the industry to change would require a conscience on their part.  That will never happen.  We have to change it by cutting the demand.  Without demand, there is no product to sell.  Every single person makes a difference.  On average, if you cut out all animals from your diet, you would be saving over 50 lives a year.  Anyone who says that one person can’t make a difference is sorely mistaken when it comes down to profit-based businesses.

If you ever doubt that farm animals have personalities, visit an animal sanctuary.  They display the same emotions as dogs and cats.  If you live in the Kentucky area, and want to visit or support one, check out Home At Last Animal Sanctuary.http://www.homeatlastanimals.org/ They rescue farm animals in addition to any other animals needing care.

¹  http://www.fsis.usda.gov/fact_sheets/Focus_On_Shell_Eggs/index.asp

²  http://www.fsis.usda.gov/fact_sheets/Meat_&_Poultry_Labeling_Terms/index.asp

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