What is the difference between free range chicken and pastured chicken?  This is a common question amongst people starting off on their journey to eat REAL food.  We want to give you the knowledge to fight through the advertising jargon to find nutrient dense food.  Food that is good for you, the animals, and the land.

First, lets tackle what free range chicken means in regards to the health of the chicken, you and the environment. All chickens raised for meat in the United States are free range.  Thus, the term “free range” on chicken meat does not mean it is in any way better for you, the animal, or the land. However, the term “free range” in laying hens is a very small step in the the right direction. A free range chicken is not confined to a cage, however, she is crammed into CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) style house. The hen in a CAFO house is allotted a notebook paper sized amount of space to live. (1) The hen’s life is minutely better than a caged hen, but free-range hens are no better for your health.

The folks at pasturedpoultry.org have explained the regulation side of free-range nicely. “The USDA definition of ‘free-range‘ is rather vague. In order to label their meat and poultry ‘free-range or free-roaming’, ‘Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.’ (2) No mention of vegetation (pasture) is made. Poultry producers themselves seem to have no common standards on what the term means. Some producers interpret ‘access to the outside’ as a small pop-door (chicken door) on an end-wall of a 100 ft. long shed filled with un-caged birds moving about freely on a litter-covered floor. Others feel they are compliant with the spirit of free-range if their birds are outside in the fresh air and sunshine; even if their ‘range‘ is bare dirt.”

When it comes to the consumer’s perception of ‘free-range‘, arguably the vision that ‘free-range‘ most often conjures is of an un-fenced bird happily hunting and pecking in the grass. Because of the wholesomeness associated with the term ‘organic’, many consumers take for granted that all certified organic poultry raised for meat and eggs are raised outside on green pasture. Sadly, this is not so. The term ‘free-range‘ is not even listed in the NOP (National Organic Program) ‘terms defined.'(3) They do give guidelines that say: ‘All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors…'(4) So when someone purchases poultry products labeled ‘free range‘ or ‘organic’, the birds may never have actually seen the light of day or green grass its entire life. Technically, they simply have to have a door out of their confinement, but they don’t have to necessarily walk through that door to meet the requirements.”

If you are interested in learning more please check out our references, or drop us a message.


(1) Salatin, Joel. Pastured Poultry Profits copyright 1993 by Joel Salatin, Second printing 2004, Third printing 1996, Polyface, Inc., Swoope, Virginia

(2) From the USDA site on meat and poultry labeling:     http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/lablterm.htm  

(3) NOP terms defined: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/NOP/standards/DefineReg.html

(4)  From the USDA website on the National Organic Program: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/FactSheets/ProdHandE.html