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The world of industrial animal agriculture has progressed exponentially over the past 100 years. Today, meat consumption has become synonymous with being “American,” and many people do not consider a meal without some form of animal protein as being “complete.” But, despite the ubiquity of meat, eggs, and dairy in the U.S. not many people understand how animals in the agriculture industry are raised, slaughtered, and delivered to their local grocery stores.

The reality of life for animals on factory farms is gruesome, to say the least. Thousands of animals are kept in cramped, filthy conditions for the duration of their lives, many of whom reach the slaughterhouse too sick to even stand. In an effort to hide the reality of where the products we consume come from, the animal agriculture industry employs clever marketing techniques to convince consumers that the animal products they are purchasing are in some way “better” and “different” than your standard mass-produced ones.

Rather than telling consumers their meat and eggs came from concentrated feeding operations where countless animals were housed in cramped, unsanitary conditions – marketers capitalize on the “positive” and label these products as being fed an “all-vegetarian diet.” This creates the illusion that animal welfare was actually given ample thought and consideration … making the consumer feel like they’re making an informed choice and picking a high-quality product. The same often occurs in the case of the “cage-free” and “free-range” labels for chickens and eggs. Sadly, the difference between what this label implies and what it actually means seems to have consumers incredibly confused.

What Free-Range Should Mean Versus Reality

In the chicken industry, the label “free-range” largely applies to chickens who are raised for meat. In accordance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) guidelines, free-range chickens are allowed access to an outdoor area. The official governance reads as such, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”

When you hear the term, you probably think of a wide-open field where chickens are allowed to peck at grass and insects as they please. Something like this:

chicken in field

Source: dbaronoss/Flickr

However, around 99.9 percent of chickens raised for meat in the United States are raised in factory farm conditions. So, rather than just having a few birds to keep track of, the typical factory farm “farmer” has around 20,000 to look after. Usually, these birds are confined to warehouses, where they may technically have access to a door that leads to a designated outdoor area, but because of the mass crowding of birds – it is highly likely that many will never see the daylight during their extremely short lifetimes.

According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), “no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of how much outdoor access must be provided, nor the quality of the land accessible to the animals is defined.”

In addition, chickens who are labeled “free-range” are also subjected to painful industry practices such as debeaking, which involves searing off the sensitive tip of the chicken’s beak without painkillers.

Here is what a “free-range” chicken farm really looks like:

Think You Know 'Free-Range' and 'Cage Free' Chicken? Think Again.

Source: Compassion in World Farming/Flickr

What Cage-Free Should Mean Versus Reality

A cage-free label indicates that chickens have lived entirely free of cages. In the case of chickens raised for meat, these birds are rarely ever caged before transport to slaughter, according to HSUS, “this label on poultry products has virtually no relevance to animal welfare.”

Where this label actually does hold weight is in the case of egg-laying hens. Most egg-laying hens raised in factory farms live in small battery cages that are shared with five to ten other hens, each is allotted space the size of an iPad. This existence is incredibly stressful, not to mention highly unsanitary as the battery cages are often stacked one on top of the other. Battery hens can never spread their wings fully, a luxury that “cage-free” hens can enjoy.

Being allowed enough space to spread their wings, you might imagine that a cage-free hen farm would look something like this:

Think You Know 'Free-Range' and 'Cage Free' Chicken? Think Again.

Source: Jessica Luca/Flickr

Yet, again in the case of factory-farmed raised hens, the term cage-free is also misleading. The typical hen house contains 100,000 egg-laying hens. In order to store all these chickens in a manner that is the most efficient and economically profitable, cage-free farms actually look like this:

factory farm chickens

Source: celio messias silva/Shutterstock

What You Can Do

Now that you know the truth about what these labels mean, it is your duty to share the truth. As consumers, it is our job to hold meat producers accountable for the claims they make and the best way to do that is by choosing not to Support them.

Chickens are highly intelligent, sentient beings, and keeping them in these conditions is extremely cruel and inhumane. You might think that purchasing “free-range” or “cage-free” is the best choice you can make, but when you look at these images, does that really seem like the case?

Thankfully, there are many chicken and egg substitutes that are not only delicious but free of all cruelty to animals. When you have an option that is truly better … why bother with anything else?

Think You Know 'Free-Range' and 'Cage Free' Chicken? Think Again.

Graphic by Hannah Williams

Easy Ways to Help the Planet:

  • Eat Less Meat: Download Food Monster, the largest plant-based Recipe app on the App Store to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy. You can also buy a hard or soft copy of our favorite vegan cookbooks.
  • Reduce Your Fast Fashion Footprint: Take initiative by standing up against fast fashion Pollution and supporting sustainable and circular brands like Tiny Rescue that are raising awareness around important issues through recycled zero-waste clothing designed to be returned and remade over and over again.
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  • Sign a Petition: Your voice matters! Help turn petitions into victories by signing the latest list of must-sign petitions to help people, animals, and the planet.
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  • Do What You Can: Reduce waste, plant trees, eat local, travel responsibly, reuse stuff, say no to single-use plastics, recycle, vote smart, switch to cold water laundry, divest from fossil fuels, save water, shop wisely, Donate if you can, grow your own food, volunteer, conserve energy, compost, and don’t forget about the microplastics and microbeads lurking in common household and personal care products!

Lead Image Sources: dbaronoss/Flickr & Compassion in World Farming/Flickr