The idea of raising livestock and poultry in more humane, enlightened ways has been gathering momentum since the late 20th century. This trend has been given focus and momentum by the popularity of books like Michael Pollan's 2007 best seller, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and homesteading magazines including the Mother Earth News. There are many marketing terms, such as "free-range" and "certified organic," that indicate an attempt at enlightened husbandry.
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Free-range Standard for Poultry
The USDA's official standard for poultry that will be marketed as "free-range" is a very simple one. It consists of a single sentence, reading "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." At its most liberal interpretation, this would imply the birds being free to roam around a farmer's fields, but, in practice, it simply means an open door. The other side of the door can be nothing more than a concrete pad, within the meaning of the definition.
Organic Standard for Poultry
The standard for organic poultry is more specific and detailed. Organic poultry must be raised in an organic regimen from their second day of life. Like free-range chickens, they must be given access to the outdoors and can only be fed on certified organic pasture or grains. They cannot be given artificial growth stimulants or antibiotics, but they can be treated by injection if they become ill.
Both of these standards are increasingly criticised for what is perceived as a minimalist approach to regulation. The definition of free-range, for example, does not require that any given chicken leave the barn, only that there be a door open to the outside. Organic standards allow producers to maintain many dubious practices, including the amputation of part of the bird's bill and the starvation of moulting hens to force them back into egg production.
There are a number of other marketing phrases applied to chickens and their eggs. "Cage-free" means that the chickens are raised uncaged; no access to the outside is implied. Some chicken producers are "Certified Humane," which requires an outside evaluation by a certification board. Debeaking is permitted, but not starvation. "Omega 3" eggs are from chickens whose diet has been manipulated to increase the natural levels of these fatty acids in eggs. Many parties are contributing to the discussion of future standards, which are intended to be more stringent and meaningful.
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- "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen"; Harold S. McGee; 2004
- "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals"; Michael Pollan; 2007
- University of Florida Extension: Specialty Meat Marketing Claims: What's the Difference?; Chad Carr, et al.; 2009
- Framingham State College: Organic Food; 2007
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms
- Mother Earth News: How to Decode Egg Cartons; Laura Sayre; April/May 2007