Many people assume that free range farming gives animals a happy life, free of the cruelty their factory farmed kin suffer. However, there are some important things you should know before choosing this option.
What's Wrong with Free-Range?
Commercial free range farms are often large-scale operations involving many thousands of animals. Due to the sheer scale of production, the welfare and individual treatment of the animals is compromised. The animals, especially chickens, are kept in unnaturally large groups that can cause stress and fighting. Free range animals are still killed at a very young age and suffer trauma both on the journey to the slaughterhouse and during the killing process.
In any kind of pig farming system the average age of a piglet ready for slaughter is a mere 16 weeks of age. If allowed to live out their natural life pigs can live 15 years or more. Husbandry practices on free range farms can be stressful and painful. Many free range pigs have rings forced through their noses to prevent them rooting in the soil, thereby denying the pigs an important natural behaviour. Pigs raised for meat are often ‘free farmed', not free range farmed. Free farmed means that the animals are housed in ‘eco' barns with litter material to root in. They cannot roam the outdoors.
The two main alternatives to cage farms are barn farms and ‘free range' operations. Barn-farmed hens are kept in large overcrowded sheds with access to nest boxes and litter. Each bird still has limited space, as seven birds are kept per square metre. To reduce aggression and cannibalism, barn hens are often kept in dimmed lighting and usually have their beaks trimmed. Many welfare problems remain due to close confinement and frustration. While most free range farms provide hens with free access to the outdoors they still have their fair share of welfare problems. Overstocking, insufficient housing, risk of predators and disease are possible problems. Some free range hens are beak-trimmed and most are killed at the same age as battery hens (18 months).
The market share of non-battery farmed eggs is growing as consumers look for and are willing to pay for more welfare-friendly alternatives. However Consumer NZ reports that the majority of free range eggs come from industrial-scale operations that farm over 10,000 hens.
Check out SAFE's Guide to Egg Labelling
Chickens raised for meat
The vast majority of, if not all, chicken available in supermarkets, cafés, restaurants and fast food outlets is produced on factory farms. Free range farms allow the birds to express natural patterns of behaviour for at least some part of their lives. Unfortunately, the primary cause of suffering in these birds is due to selective breeding for high meat production, to the detriment of leg strength and organ health. It is important to note that the free range chicken industry uses the same breeding stock as factory farms, and their animals are therefore predisposed to the same welfare problems of lameness and other illness. While leg weakness can be alleviated by free ranging, the main contributor remains the top-heavy and fast-growing breeds used by the poultry industry.
Besides this, the chicks being reared come from breeding operations shared with factory farmed operations. Parent birds are constantly hungry, as they are kept on a restricted diet in order to prevent them from growing as fast as the chickens reared for meat. If their growth were not controlled, they would not survive. Free range chickens are slaughtered at around 8 weeks of age, only a fraction of their normal lifespan.
Free range standards
Animal industries in New Zealand do not have their own free range certifications - it suits them not to highlight the difference between different standards of welfare in different production systems.
For example, industry bodies such as the Egg Producers Federation, the Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand and the Pork Board represent their entire industries, from battery and crate farmers to free range producers. They are not interested in introducing proper labelling systems that would show the different production methods used, as this would disadvantage their intensive producers.
SAFE does not endorse any animal production method, as all commercial farming systems have some form of cruelty inherent in the system - for example, most animal husbandry practices cause stress or pain and, of course, no farm animal will ever live out its natural life. Any kind of animal farming is not done in the interest of the animals themselves and causes suffering for them - they are bred solely for profit.
- The only truly cruelty-free option is to eat with care.
- As an animal advocacy organisation dedicated to helping to save animals from cruelty, SAFE promotes a positive lifestyle that does not use animals for food.
- SAFE believes the simplest way to help animals is not to eat them!
- Check out our list of delicious meat-free recipes.