"Free Range" Is Still Factory Farming

Published 01/15/06
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 32 Number 4, Winter 2001
Every year billions of animals are raised and killed for human consumption. On today’s high-production farms, animals are crammed into tiny cages or crowded pens, unable to express natural behaviors, see sunlight, or even breathe fresh air. Farm animals undergo painful mutilations and surgical procedures performed without anesthetic that would be illegal if performed on cats or dogs. In fact, 30 U.S. states have enacted laws that specifically exempt farm animals from certain parts of their anti-cruelty statutes. Thereby certain acts, no matter how cruel, are outside the realm of legal protection as long as the acts are deemed accepted, common, customary, or normal farming practices.
Happy Farm Animals
Responding to growing concerns over farm animal treatment, some meat, egg, and milk producers have introduced products that claim their animals are treated humanely. However, consumers purchasing such products may not be getting what they think they are paying for. While terms such as humanely raised, free range, or cage free conjure up images of happy farm animals frolicking in open pastures and sunshine, gleefully offering their bodies for human use, the reality is less than idyllic.
“Free-range” cows and sheep must be “grass fed and live on a range,” and birds must have some form of access to the outdoors, but no other criteria * such as the size of the “range,” the amount of space individual animals must have, or animal care and handling * are required. The Washington Post Magazine reported that, especially in the case of birds, the term free-range “doesn’t really tell you anything about the [animal’s] quality of life, nor does it even assure that the animal actually goes outdoors.” Moreover, the accuracy of these claims is rarely if ever verified because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which defines free-range and free-roaming for labeling purposes, relies “upon producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.”
Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, visited Happy Hen Organic Fertile Brown Eggs, a “free-range” egg farm in Pennsylvania. According to flyers for Happy Hen eggs, the hens run free “in a natural setting” and are “humanely housed in healthy, open-sided housing, for daily sunning * something Happy Hens really enjoy.” Davis’s observations stood in stark contrast to the farm’s claims. “Inside, the birds were wall to wall. They were severely debeaked and their feathers were in bad condition * straggly, drab, and worn off.” More than 7,000 birds were housed in each Happy Hen barn, and individual hens had no more than 1½ square feet of space, not room enough even to spread their wings. Happy Hens were also occasionally force-molted (denied food for several days to shock the hens into losing their feathers and prematurely starting a new laying cycle).
Recently, the American Humane Association (AHA) introduced its own “Free Farmed” labeling program. Unlike other labels that rely solely on producer’s claims, the “Free Farmed” label uses an independent third party verification system to ensure that producers, processors, and haulers meet the Animal Welfare Standards set forth by the AHA. AHA standards require that livestock have access to clean and “sufficient” food and water, protection from weather elements, space, and other features to ensure the safety, health, and comfort of the animal. In addition, the standards require that managers and stock keepers be thoroughly trained, skilled, and competent in animal husbandry and welfare.
Inherent Cruelties
Animals raised to produce “free-farmed” and other such labeled products may be given a little more space, spared certain cruel procedures, and afforded a bit more consideration than their factory-farmed counterparts, yet meat, milk, and eggs can never be considered truly humane products.
Even the best labeling programs fail to address some cruelties inherent in animal agriculture. For example, like other chickens, “free-range” meat-type chickens have been genetically altered to grow abnormally large and as a result their bones are often unable to support the weight of their muscle tissue, causing them to hobble in pain or become totally crippled prior to slaughter.
The parents of these birds suffer as well. According to Ian J. H. Duncan, Ph.D. and Professor of Poultry Ethology at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, meat-type chickens used for breeding are “obviously suffering,” as a result of only being allowed 40-50% of food they would normally eat to satisfy their hunger. This state of constant starvation is considered necessary to keep the birds’ weight down and avoid the crippling that plagues their offspring. Turkeys are so genetically altered that they can not even breed naturally, so all turkeys are forcefully inseminated by artificial means.
Producers who allow their cows to graze in pasture and claim to treat animals humanely offer no explanation for the fate of the calves produced on their dairies. To continue to produce milk a cow must have a calf each year. Calves normally stay with their mothers for a year or more. However, on the dairy farm, calves are immediately removed from their mothers so that the milk can be sold for human consumption. The female calves are usually used to replace worn-out dairy cows. Many of the male calves are confined and chained in small wooden crates to produce “white” veal.
Like their feedlot and factory farmed counterparts, “free-range” cattle, sheep, and pigs are castrated without anesthesia, and, when large enough, they too are crammed into metal trucks and taken to slaughter. On the way to the slaughterhouse livestock may travel for hours in freezing or sweltering temperatures with no access to food or water. Worn-out “free-range” dairy cows are often literally dragged to slaughter; 91% of “downers” (animals to sick or injured to walk) at slaughterhouses and auctions are dairy cows.
Slaughterhouse Cruelty
Another aspect of meat production that “free-farmed” and other labeling schemes are incapable of addressing is the actual slaughter of the animals. Through the Freedom of Information Act, The Washington Post obtained enforcement documents from 28 slaughter plants and exposed horrific acts of cruelty that occur on a daily basis in slaughterhouses throughout the United States. The Post also interviewed dozens of current and former federal meat inspectors and slaughterhouse workers who admitted to routinely witnessing the strangling, beating, scalding, skinning, and butchering of live, fully conscious animals. According to The Washington Post, “Enforcement records, interviews, videos and worker affidavits describe repeated violations of the Humane Slaughter Act at dozens of slaughterhouses ranging from the smallest, custom butcheries to modern, automated establishments.”
While the Humane Slaughter Act regulates the transport, handling, stunning, and slaughter of farm animals at federally inspected slaughterhouses and is supposed to be enforced by USDA inspectors stationed inside the slaughter facilities, abuse is commonplace. In recent years, the large number of animals produced on factory farms has greatly increased the number of animals slaughtered and processed. In the biggest operations, one animal is killed every three seconds. This mass killing of farm animals for profit makes federal inspectors hesitant to stop the production line when they see a violation. “In plants all over the United States, this happens on a daily basis,” says Lester Friedlander, a veterinarian and formerly chief government inspector at a Pennsylvania hamburger plant. “I’ve seen it happen. And I’ve talked to other veterinarians. They feel it’s out of control.”
Even if labeling schemes could eliminate all cruelties associated with the rearing, transport, and slaughter of farm animals, for many there is an obvious conflict between caring for animals and supporting their deliberate and unnecessary killing. Those who cannot reconcile this conflict attempt to avoid animal products altogether. But even for the most adamant animal lovers, dietary habits can be hard to break. For some, “humane” meat, milk, and eggs offer a way to reduce animal suffering while working toward eliminating animal products from their lives. Moreover, helping farm animals does not have to be an all or nothing proposition. Animal advocates can support “improved” conditions for farmed animals even if the larger goal is to eliminate their exploitation entirely. Working to improve conditions for farm animals may not match our ideals but it does make a difference to the animals who as a result of incremental changes may be spared some suffering in their short lives.
While “free range” suggests that the animals live in conditions close to their “natural” state, the reality is probably closer to “confinement” or “factory” farming. The extremes of natural and confined conditions are contrasted below.

Natural: Pigs are intelligent, sensitive, and clean animals. When provided with ample space they establish a well-defined social order and allot separate areas for resting and defecating. Pigs are very active: they enjoy running, digging in the dirt (rooting) and splashing in puddles, and playing with other pigs. At term a pregnant sow will isolate herself from the herd and build a nest out of leaves, branches, grass, or straw in which to give birth to her piglets. She will then wait several days after birth before leading her piglets out to meet the herd. Before nursing her piglets, the careful mother sweeps the nest or the ground with her snout, pushing piglets out of the way, then drops to her front knees and slowly lies down to allow her piglets suck.
Confinement: More than 80% of all pigs raised in the U.S. are raised on farms which keep more than 1,000 animals. The pigs are crammed into indoor, near-dark, windowless confinement sheds, where the air is filled with eye- and lung-burning ammonia created from the waste that collects below the floors. Young pigs destined for slaughter are raised in crowded pens while their mothers spend most their lives in metal crates so small that they cannot even turn around. Some farms also use a “tether system” in which sows are tied by a neck collar and chain or girth strap inside an open backed crate * such crates are sometimes referred to as “rape racks” because sows can not escape the advances of the breeding boar. Denied adequate space and freedom of movement, crated sows often develop stereotypic behavior. Stereotypic behavior consists of repetitive movements that serve no practical purpose, such as head bobbing, jaw smacking, and rail biting. While farmers claim that such crates are necessary to prevent sows from crushing their piglets and to make breeding easier, pigs have survived in the wild and on farms for centuries without the “benefit” of confinement crates.

Natural: Chickens are highly social animals with a hierarchy commonly known as a “pecking order.” Chickens can maintain a stable pecking order in a flock up to 90 birds with each bird knowing every other bird”s individual place in the flock. Chickens spend most of their day foraging for food, grooming, nesting, dust bathing, and sunning. Mother hens spend most of their time nurturing their chicks by diligently searching for and offering various food items, covering chicks for naps, and fiercely defending them even against terrible odds and predators much larger than themselves.
Confinement: More than 99% of egg-laying hens in the U.S. are kept in “battery cages” in which the average space for each hen is 48-54 square inches * little bigger than a half-sheet of notebook paper. Studies of chicken behavior have determined that the absolute minimum area required for a hen to stand comfortably is 72 square inches. Battery cages do not allow hens to express any normal behaviors such as dust bathing, nesting, or foraging (60% of an unconfined hen’s day consists of foraging). Without the outlets for these instinctive behaviors hens become stressed, lose much of their feathers, and begin to peck each other excessively. Rather than provide more space for the hens to prevent pecking, farmers cut off the sensitive upper portion of the beak with a hot blade.

Dairy Calves
Natural: A calf is nurtured and nursed by its mother for up to eight months. He or she receives all the necessary immunities and nutrients from milk, and strength and coordination by romping with other calves in an open pasture. So strong is the bond between cow and calf that if separated they may bellow and pace for hours in an attempt to find one another.
Confinement: On the dairy farm calves are taken away at 24-48 hours after birth, so humans can drink the milk. A calf separated from his or her mother at an early age does not receive all the necessary immunities through the milk, and is therefore vulnerable to disease. A 10% mortality rate is common. Calves destined for veal production are often confined to small crates typically no larger than 22″ wide and 58″ long, making it difficult for them achieve normal posture for comfort. They are fed an all-liquid diet of milk powder mixed with water, which lacks adequate iron. This diet deliberately causes anemia to keep the flesh pale. The absence of fiber in the diet also leads to chronic indigestion and diarrhea. So deprived are these calves that they will constantly lick at the crates and their own hair in an effort to obtain the roughage they need. This isolation, confinement, and nutritional deprivation lasts four to six months. Scientific research indicates that calves confined in crates experience “chronic stress” and exhibit abnormal coping behaviors associated with frustration, and suffer from leg and joint disorders.

What’s in a Name? Free Range or Cage Free: No government laws or standards regulate the use of terms such as “free-range” and “free-roaming” on egg cartons. For eggs, these or similar labels generally mean that hens are uncaged yet confined indoors in crowded sheds. For animals raised for meat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stipulates that free-range chickens must have “access to the outdoors” and free-range cows and sheep must be “grass fed and live on a range.” No other criteria * such as the size of the “range,” the amount of space individual animals must have, or animal care and handling * are required.
Natural: “Natural” foods “contain no artificial ingredients and are only minimally processed.” Animals raised for natural meats are given no hormones or antibiotics, although they may be fed corn and other grain grown with pesticides. No animal care, treatment, or housing standards are required.
Organic: For dairy or meat products to be certified organic, farmland must be free of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides for at least three years. After this transition period, the farmland may be used to grow organic crops that are used for pasture or feed for farm animals. Animals are not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones and must be fed only 100% certified organic feed. All organically raised animals must have “access to the outdoors”; this includes access to pasture for cows, sheep, and goats. Some organic certification agencies require that laying hens be provided food and water during their molting period. Confinement, mutilation, transportation, and other animal welfare issues are not addressed.
Kosher or Ritual Slaughter: Ritual slaughter is performed according to the religious requirements of the Jewish or Muslim religious faiths. The animal is slaughtered without being stunned, with a sharp knife. The animal is fully conscious as its throat is slit and the blood drains out of its body. A major concern with kosher/ritual slaughter is the stressful and cruel methods of restraint that are used by some plants in which the animals are shackled by one or both hind legs and are hung upside down prior to slaughter. This method can result in torn flesh and ligaments, ruptured joints, and bone fractures. Some plants have installed modern restraining equipment that holds animals in a more comfortable upright position. Pre-slaughter animal husbandry issues such as confinement, mutilation, and transport are not addressed.