USDA Free Range Chicken & Eggs

I always thought that a “Free-Range” chicken was allowed to roam freely around green pastures eating bugs and all kinds of other insects. However, what I discovered through doing some research (via internet and talking with local farmers that raise free-range chickens and sell their meat and eggs) threw me for a loop.

Photos of Free range chicken and eggs at OTransformation.com in Raleigh, NC

What exactly is
FREE-RANGE?

USDA & Free Range Chicken

The USDA allows for any chicken raised with access to the outdoors to be labeled “free-range”. Nowhere does it state that the chickens have to actually go outdoors; ACCESS is the only legal binding verbiage of that rule. They may still be raised in the same overpopulated poultry house type production and be labeled “free-range”. Furthermore, those farmers can charge more for their “free-range” product. Certified organic chickens may also be raised like this. A trailer full of chickens, raised in coops stacked 3 tiers high on top of one another, can be labeled “free range” as long as there is a door on that confining facility. I bet you didn’t know that – I know I didn’t.

USDA Standards for Free Range Eggs

What’s even scarier is that the USDA has NO STANDARDS on free-range eggs and allows egg farmers to freely label any egg as a “free range” egg. This also means that chickens bearing “free-range” eggs have NOT necessarily been fed a better diet than those raised in a factory farm. In other words, the hens may still have been fed the same GMO or animal byproducts as in factory farming. It is mind-blowing that I have been spending more money on buying “free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free” eggs, when it really doesn’t mean anything.

Hormone Free Chicken

While we’re on this topic, one thing does require clarification. Hormones have not been approved for use in U.S. egg or poultry production by the FDA. So, there’s really no such thing as a chicken with hormones anyway. Those farmers labeling their chickens as “hormone-free” are either using that term out of ignorance of this fact (highly unlikely) or they’re simply trying to con you into thinking their chickens are better than anyone else’s. Either way, it makes no difference, so ignore that on the label. This applies to both organic and conventional.

Perhaps I sound like a broken record when advising people to talk to local farmers and find out about their food, but the reason I say this is that sometimes local farmers won’t go out and get organic certified. Most of their business comes from loyal customers who know about the true amount of labor and love that farmer is putting into that food. Why go out and become “organic certified” when it no longer means what it used to? It would appear that greed has taken hold where it hurts us the most; in our nutrition.

Marion Nestle in “What to Eat” – on Eggs

To sum up, let me leave you with a little of what the well-known nutritionist Marion Nestle states about eggs in her book “What to Eat” –

From a nutritional standpoint, eggs are eggs. Turning eggs into a “designer” food is a great way to get you to pay more for them but there are less expensive and easier ways to get vitamin E, selenium, lutein, and omega-3s from foods. If you do not give a hoot about how the eggs are produced, buy the cheapest ones you can find. The shell color makes no nutritional difference.

If you do care enough about how the hens are treated to pay more for eggs, buy Certified Humane (but not United Egg Producers Certified). If you also care about what the hens are fed, or just want to cast your food vote for the organic movement, buy eggs that are Certified Organic. Whatever eggs you decide to buy, don’t eat too many of them – or buy the smallest size. Small eggs still have a lot of cholesterol, but less than the extra-large and jumbo sizes.

10 replies
  1. Emily
    Emily says:

    Thanks for the information – navigating the egg labeling landscape can be very confusing. Another certification your readers may be interested in is “Animal Welfare Approved.” Unlike Certified Humane, UEP, or “free range”, this label requires that hens be raised in pasture-based systems according to the rigorous standards of the Animal Welfare Approved program. The New York Times recently published a piece that lauded Animal Welfare Approved as “utopia” for hens, and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) rated Animal Welfare Approved standards as the “most stringent” of any third-party certifier. Additionally, when birds are raised outside on quality pasture, the eggs are more nutritious! For more information, to read the standards or to find a farmer near you, visit http://www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.

  2. Matt
    Matt says:

    You are right that labels such as “free-range” and “organic” mean next to nothing when applied to animal products. The animals are still treated like unfeeling commodoties and abused in ways that would horrify most people. But I’m surprised that instead of telling people to ignore labels that you don’t just offer a more simple suggestion. Replace all eggs and other animal products with healthy and humane plant-based foods.

    To quote other well known nutritionists:

    “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

    “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence. Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals. Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.”

    [Source: http://www.eatright.org/cps/rde/xchg/ada/hs.xsl/advocacy_933_ENU_HTML.htm

  3. Rick Osborn
    Rick Osborn says:

    Your points are well taken. There are definite advantages to vegan diets, but we’re not trying to exclusively promote vegetarian diets here, but offer people healthy information and alternatives. Nevertheless, we certainly welcome and appreciate the information that you’ve shared about a vegetarian diet.

  4. Saimir Ogranaja
    Saimir Ogranaja says:

    I am so happy to see people leaving comments on our new blog. It is great to see that this strikes home with people.

    Emily, thank you for that suggestion and I had been toying with the idea of writing a blog on exactly that. I think I will end up finding so much horrifying information that it’ll be tough to censor it for “virgin” ears.

    Matt, I completely agree with you that a vegetarian based diet can and does offer the nutrition needed by humans. My fiancee is a vegetarian and is healthier than ever. Our goal is to educate people to make the best possible choices on the food they decide to eat. I think that if they choose to eat meat (or anything for that matter) they should know where it comes from. The only thing I preach (and I’m ashamed to say, I do this quite often) is that people should spend more time finding out where their food comes from and how it was raised or grown instead of the mindless eating we as americans have gotten so accustomed to. I hate to say this but I think there are a lot of people that don’t know what really happens in “factory-farms”. I think if more people knew, they would change their eating habits and that’s our ULTIMATE goal. Education.

    Thank you everyone for posting your opinions on this and PLEASE keep them coming.
    Sam

  5. Chris Woodring
    Chris Woodring says:

    As a farmer of “free-range” “pasture fed” “cage-free” eggs, I read your information with some interest. I noted that there were no nutritional differences noted between pasture fed and and standard production eggs. According to numerous studies (those below from 2007, Mother Earth News) there are some big-time differences in the nutritional qualities of the pasture fed and standard fed bird eggs. Those noted were:
    • 1/3 less cholesterol
    • 1/4 less saturated fat
    • 2/3 more vitamin A
    • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
    • 3 times more vitamin E
    • 7 times more beta carotene
    Even though I offer the advantages of a fresher, more nutritios egg at a lower-than-supermarket price I have still been unable to sell my eggs. Frustrating.

  6. Sam
    Sam says:

    Hey Chris,

    Thank you for reading my blog. I’ve gotta be honest with you. I have a problem with studies showing that free-range eggs vs. conventional eggs are more nutritious. The reason is that studies could be skewed in either direction. I will say this and say it with confidence; I can ABSOLUTELY tell the difference from free-range eggs that I buy from the farmers market to the eggs from local grocery store even if they claim to be free-range. I will NEVER buy eggs from a grocery store again, I don’t care if I go without for a month. The yolk is different, the taste is different and you may be right Chris, that nutritionally they may be different as well. Studies may prove scientifically that one is better than the other or that there is no difference, but I can observe the difference with my own eyes and taste buds.

    I am sorry you are having trouble selling your eggs. I am not sure if you do this but have you thought about joining a local farmers market? Or simply approaching local gyms and personal training centers to see if someone would like to purchase from you? Maybe even local restaurants. I think the Raleigh area is seeing the light and trying to become and eat healthier. They’re trying to make more conscious choices of what goes in their bodies and where it comes from. I’m certainly trying hard to show people that if you don’t know who raised your food, you don’t know what you’re eating.

    If you think there is any way that I can help ask me for my email address and I’ll try to help in any way that I can. For now, God bless and good luck in your venture. God knows we need more caring farmers like you out there. Keep chugging along. If you love what you’re doing it’ll show in your product and people will pick up on that.

  7. Chris Woodring
    Chris Woodring says:

    Sam,

    Thanks for the reply. I re-read my e-mail and realized that it wasn’t exactly clear about the sale of eggs. It isn’t that I can’t sell them, I just have trouble selling all of them consistantly, especially at the time of the message, and that is frustrating.

    I do sell them at several local farmer’s markets, and I usually sell most or all of my eggs during the market season, but while the markets open in May or June, and close in September or October in this area, the hens lay year round, leaving me with the challenge of selling the eggs from October to April. My strategy is to direct market to local businessess and clients homes, very anti-cost effective I might note, and even so my production seems to stay two steps ahead of my market.

    I understand your hesitation to accept the results of any published study. However, the direct link between a hens diet and the egg characteristics is logical, and of course it makes sense that most folks would have no difficulty tasting that difference. When I butcher one of my hens the gizzard is completly stuffed with grass. Although they do eat some chicken feed, the grass is their main-stay.

    A contrary logic might argue that although the meat of chicken will be different based on diet, “an egg is an egg is an egg”. And while that also makes logical sense, don’t tell that to a human mother. Dietitians, doctors, and mothers everywhere are convinced that the egg, and then the developing embryo are indeed very much influenced by what the mothers eat (and listen to, as far as that goes).

    There is probably a simple chemical test that can be done in anyone’s kitchen that could measure one or more of the supposed differences between the eggs. I wonder if anyone out there would know how to do that?!!! Especially the fat should be a simple thing practical to measure. The deeper orange in the yolk is a sign of more vitamin B (or so I was taught in school), but although we can ‘see’ it, that’s not the same thing as measuring it.

    As far as the market for ‘country eggs’ as they call them here, this strangely seems to have contracted in this area. 30 years ago when I first started selling eggs I could not produce enough for my customers, even though I had a larger flock and ‘white’ eggs, which are less preferred. I sold them all from home, with no need for a farmer’s market or any other sales strategy. Now my sales at home are virtually nil. And no, I have’t changed my residence! A common feed back I get at the Farmer’s Market from many clients of my other products is that they don’t like pasture fed eggs because they are ‘nasty’. My theory is that the majority of the population has now never eaten a pastured egg, and have come to accept the mass-produced egg as the ‘gold standard’ to which everything else is measured. Recently a study on home-grown tomatoes was carried out and it was found that most urbanites who grew up on shipped tomatoes actually prefered their flavor to that of home-grown. I think the same thing has happened with eggs. That’s my theory anyway!

    Have a good one.

    Chris

  8. Kate McLaney
    Kate McLaney says:

    I agree with all the criticisms about the terms “free range” and “organic”. About 13 years ago I started raising my own chickens, initially for the eggs but soon fell in love with the critters, started hatching my own and eventually started mixing my own feeds for them so I would KNOW what they ate and how. My hens are “my girls” and they could not possibly be more “free range”. The only fences they have to contend with are the ones that keep them off the road so they dont get run over. They have free range over my entire 35 acre property and I LOVE that they eat bugs, weed seeds and all the scraps that come from my kitchen. They lead charmed lives, in the world of chickens, but I realize that most chickens arent treated like “family”.
    So…..as the exception to the afore-mentioned criticism, I would just like to say dont lump EVERYONE in the same catagory. There are some of us out here that sell to the public and actually practice what we preach. My girls only eat organic feed, hang out anywhere they can escape the watchful eye of the hawks overhead because the hawks KNOW the girls are free range and make tasty take-out dinners.
    Check out my website highlandharvest.net and if you are in western NC, I can set you up with TRULY healthy eggs and produce. You wont find my goods on any grocery store shelf as I am and always have been a tiny little farm in the middle of no-where that has way too much integrity to ever consider doing anything less than what I am now…..talking to my girls several times a day and hand delivering each and every dozen eggs to my customers myself. I even give away my first dozen eggs because when you see and taste a truly organic free range egg from my farm and compare it to the free range claimed eggs at the grocery store, I KNOW you will be back for more. I am THAT confident. Once you have had the difference, you will KNOW who is full of whooie.

    Hang in there, the whole world isnt messed up! Integrity lives!

    Kate McLaney
    HighlandHarvest.net

  9. Mary Benefeito
    Mary Benefeito says:

    To Chris,
    I think it is interesting that you don’t have year round customers. I live in the Sacramento area, which is heavily populated, and have had a difficult time finding local range free eggs, meats, etc. Of course the whole food type stores carry them, but I would prefer to find them from a local person.

  10. Chris' Egg Farm/Chris Copley
    Chris' Egg Farm/Chris Copley says:

    I sell thousands of free-range, same day eggs at (certified) Farmers Markets throughout northern California. What are same day eggs? That indicates that not only were the eggs laid that very same day but they were also harvested and brough to Market thevery day they are laid. What are free-range eggs? Free range eggs come from Chickens that spend AT LEAST 9 hours outdoors in the open air (sunshine or otherwise) I don’t usually sell eggs to new customers who have not first been out to visit my farm and seen, first-hand, the days routine for the Chicken. Hey, if you can’t be bothered to actually check out what you are eating then I simply can’t be bothered to sell you my eggs. NO. I am not joking! Why don’t you simply meander down to your local supermarket and purchase your chemical and hormone laden egg. My regular customers – some of whom have been buying eggs from me at local Farmers Markets for over 20 years – are generally a healthier, happier group of educated folks who know what is good for them. I WANT them to be around for a long, long time (and, in the process, to keep buying my eggs). You shouldn’t boil my eggs – at least not for a few days and I don’t like my eggs being refrigerated – EVER….ask me why.

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