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February 2006
Chickens, Eggs and the “Free-Range” Fallacy

By Monica Engebretson


Original artwork by Dan Piraro

Every year billions of chickens are raised and killed for human consumption. The conditions on today’s high-production farms are appalling. Animals are crammed into tiny cages or crowded pens, unable to express natural behaviors, and can’t even see sunlight or breathe fresh air. Chickens also undergo painful mutilations such as debeaking and toe-clipping without benefit of anesthesia.

Such farming practices have caused many people to question the ethics of using animals for food. In a 1995 nationwide poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, 93 percent of those surveyed agreed that animal pain and suffering should be reduced as much as possible even though the animals are destined for slaughter. Eighty-nine percent of respondents also disapproved of keeping hens in cages so small that they are never able to stretch their wings. When asked about industry responsibility, 82 percent felt that the meat and egg industries should be held legally responsible for making sure that farm animals are protected from cruelty.

It seems, however, that consumers seeking to ease their consciences are more willing to pay higher prices for “ethical” animal products than to change their eating habits. Although a 2000 Zogby poll showed that 21 percent of Americans would not give up meat for one week, even in exchange for a $1,000 check, a 1999 survey by the Animal Industry Foundation found that 44 percent of consumers would pay five percent more for meat and poultry products labeled as “humanely raised.”

In response to the growing concern over the treatment of farmed animals, some meat, egg, and milk producers have introduced products that they claim are from ‘humanely’ treated animals. But consumers purchasing such products may not be getting what they think they are paying for. While terms like “organic,” “free-range,” or “cage-free” conjure up images of happy animals frolicking in open pastures and sunshine, gleefully offering their bodies for human use, the reality is far less idyllic.

Certified Sham
No government laws regulate the use of terms such as “free-range” and “free-roaming” for egg producers.

For poultry raised for meat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), defines free-range and free-roaming for labeling purposes as having “access to the outdoors.” The USDA generally “relies upon producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.” However, the lack of routine verification of these “testimonials” enables producers to stretch the definition of these terms.

Under the USDA National Organic Program, all certified organic chicken and egg producers must also provide “access to the outdoors” for their birds. To meet this requirement, however, many “certified organic” and “free-range” birds are crowded into sheds with open siding or with a few enclosed porches, which may be closed off for several months during the year. The birds may never actually set foot outside, and the organic and free-range standards do not outline any other animal welfare criteria, such as the amount of space individual birds must have.

In addition to being vague and not substantially improving animal welfare, “free-range,” “cage-free,” and “organic” labeling programs fail to address many of the cruelties inherent in chicken meat and egg production.

For example, there is no restriction under the National Organic Program or the “cage-free” and “free-range” labeling programs that prevents chickens from being debeaked, a procedure, typically performed without anesthetic, in which the sensitive top portion of the beak is burned or cut off to prevent chickens from excessively pecking and injuring each other in overcrowded conditions. Nor do these programs prevent egg-laying hens from enduring “forced molting,” the practice of denying hens food and water to “shock” their bodies into a new egg-laying cycle.

And, like their factory farmed counterparts, “free-range,” “cage-free,” and “organic” broiler chickens and laying hens are eventually crammed into crates, loaded onto trucks and taken to slaughter.

On the way to the slaughterhouse, animals may travel for hours in freezing or sweltering temperatures with no access to food or water. While birds comprise nearly 99 percent of all animals killed in USDA-inspected slaughter plants, they are not afforded the basic protections granted other species under the Humane Slaughter Act. The treatment of chickens in federally inspected slaughterhouses, no matter how cruel, falls outside the realm of legal oversight.

At most slaughterhouses, chickens are hung upside-down and attached by their feet to a moving line while still conscious. The birds’ heads and upper bodies are dragged through an electrified water bath, which immobilizes the birds to reduce their struggling and paralyzes their follicles to facilitate feather removal. The electric bath is not intended to—and typically fails to—render the birds insensible to pain.

After immobilization, the birds, many of whom remain conscious or soon regain consciousness, have their necks cut by a machine blade or by a human hand before proceeding to a scalding tank. Birds who are missed by the mechanical blade or who have only one jugular vein severed may retain consciousness while entering the tank, where they are boiled alive. Carcasses from animals who have been boiled alive retain a reddish color and are so common that the industry has dubbed them “redskins.” For example, according to documents obtained by United Poultry Concerns under the Freedom of Information Act, in Fiscal Year 1993, of the 7.08 billion total poultry slaughtered in USDA facilities, 3.12 million birds were known to have entered scalding tanks while still alive.

More ‘Humane’ Options?
In response to the failure of government-regulated labeling programs to adequately address animal welfare concerns, several third-party certification programs, including “Certified Humane” and Whole Foods’ “Animal Compassionate Standards,” have been formed. These programs set specific standards for the husbandry, transport, and slaughter of various species of farmed animals, defining criteria such as the amount of quality space required per animal.

Some independent organic labeling programs also offer stricter standards for care and housing than those of the USDA National Organic Program. In fact, the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA) has a lawsuit pending against the USDA after the federal agency overruled NOFA’s decision not to certify eggs produced by the Country Hen, a Massachusetts egg producer that simply put a few porches on hen houses holding thousands of chickens in order to comply with the USDA’s “access to the outdoors” requirement.

Even the best independent or third-party labeling programs, however, fail to address some cruelties inherent in animal agriculture. For example, broiler chickens have been genetically selected to grow abnormally large. As a result, the chickens’ bones are often unable to support the weight of their muscle tissue, causing them to hobble in pain or even to become completely crippled prior to slaughter.

The parents of these genetically altered birds suffer as well. According to Ian J.H. Duncan, Ph.D., Professor of Poultry Ethology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, broiler chickens used for breeding are “obviously suffering” as a result of only being allowed 40 to 50 percent of food they would normally eat to satisfy their hunger. This state of constant starvation is considered necessary to keep the birds’ weight down.

Another problem inherent in egg production, including the production of “humane” eggs, is the disposal of unwanted male chicks. Because the males don’t lay eggs, and because chickens bred for egg production do not grow fast enough to be profitable to the meat industry, male chicks are routinely “disposed of.” To cut costs, newly-hatched male chicks are often thrown into plastic bags to suffocate or are tossed into a feed grinder while still alive.

Making a Real Difference
Even if all cruelties of poultry production and slaughter could be eliminated, for many people there is too great a conflict between caring for animals and supporting their deliberate and unnecessary killing. Many who cannot reconcile this conflict work to avoid using or consuming animal products altogether and adopt a vegan diet.

Moreover, helping farmed animals does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Animal advocates can support “improved” conditions for chickens and other farmed animals even if our larger goal is to eliminate their exploitation entirely. Working to improve conditions for farmed animals may not perfectly reflect our ideals, but it does make a difference to the individual animals who may be spared some suffering in their short lives as a result of incremental changes.

Monica Engebretson is Senior Program Coordinator for the Animal Protection Institute. For more information contact



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