What Do Chicken-Words Mean?

By Matthew Yglesias

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Via Jim Henley, Dana Velden offers the explanation of chicken-related labeling that you’ve been craving:

First off, terms like ‘free-range’ and ‘cage-free’ don’t always mean what people think (and hope) they mean. In fact, because there is very little regulation for these words, they basically have no meaning whatsoever. Cage-free is simply that the chickens aren’t raised in battery cages but that doesn’t mean they aren’t stuffed into huge houses with forty thousand other chickens, leading only a slightly less miserable life than if they were in cages. And free-range chickens do have access to the outdoors, but it does not mean that they are actually using it.

Right now, the term ‘pasture-raised’ isn’t very regulated either. In general, it refers to a system where the chickens are grazed outdoors in movable shelters and are fed organic feed, free of hormones and antibiotics. Pastured chickens are allowed to be chickens: scratch in the dirt, eat bugs, take dust baths. It’s a fairly new term and until someone comes along to exploit it, it’s the one I trust the most.

Velden’s ultimate advice is that you need to “find a good farmer you can trust and pay what you can for their products.” That seems sensible, though at the same time I’m not totally sure how you would put it into practice. The vendors at the Bloomingdale Farmer’s Market all seem trustworthy to me, but I haven’t personally verified the provenance of all their chickens. Ultimately, I don’t think trust- and market-based approaches to this sort of thing are really viable. The financial incentives for cheating are pretty big. Insofar as things like humane treatment of chickens remains a purely niche concern, trustworthy farmers may be in high supply as a personal mission. But if the market grows, the unscrupulous purveyors will tend to crowd out the scrupulous ones. What’s needed, ultimately, is a better regulatory fix in which “cage-free” or “free-range” designation will do a better job of corresponding to real humane treatment of animals.

5 responses to “What Do Chicken-Words Mean?

  1. Yeah I guess, but the certification process isn’t free… at least it isn’t for “organic”… and I’d kinda hate to see more of these kind of fees get foisted onto small farms. Then you just end up with big corporate operations that can afford the certification costs and spend all their time hewing to the very minimum it takes to maintain that status. Obviously, industrial farming is not something we are ever going to be able to escape… but I’d hate to advocate making it even harder for the small farm.

    In the Supermarket, I’m for regulating the words used on packages… but at the Farmer’s Market? Shouldn’t that be the job of the organizers of the market?

  2. I’ve gone so far as to visit my egg source and help them kill and process chickens (I won’t go into details; you can visit my website if you want to know more). Two of the farmers at the market I go to I *know* encourage clients to do this, and all welcome visitors. Some hold “open farm” days as well, with potlucks and whatnot.

    So “trust and verify” shouldn’t be all that hard if you’re already shopping at a farmers’ market. It’s a nice excuse for a trip to the country, if nothing else.

  3. What JW said, plus, as Courtney points out, the first level of verification is a farmer who does not try to keep people away from the farm.

  4. pseudonymous in nc

    Yep, nthing all those. Our preferred source is someone who has a sufficiently open farm that she encourages people to drop off their cartons which then get reused for her eggs.

    Not quite as old-school as the place where I bought eggs in the Gulf Islands of BC which stacked up eggs in boxes each morning on a table next to an honesty box for payment, but that kind of setup is only possible when you pretty much know everyone who’ll pass by.

  5. Why can’t the same process used to certify kosher food be used to certify humane food?

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