Food label "fowl" play: the free run myth - BC SPCA
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Food label “fowl” play: the free run myth

September 27, 2021

With so many different labels found on meat and eggs, it can be difficult to know what each means in terms of animal welfare. “Free run” and “free range” can be particularly confusing labels. First, it’s important to define these labels in general terms.

Free run: animals are raised cage-free, but indoors.

Free range: animals are raised cage-free and have access to the outdoors.

Eggs

When shopping for eggs, “free run” and “free range” are meaningful labels to look for, as they are better than the alternative: cages. After all, no one likes to think of laying hens living in tiny, cramped spaces called battery cages. Unfortunately, this is the reality for 72% of laying hens in B.C.

For this reason, looking for cage-free labels like “free run” or “free range” on eggs can make a difference in the life of laying hens. Free run eggs mean the laying hens are not raised in cages and are free to roam around the barn. Free range eggs mean the laying hens are free to roam around the barn, and when the weather permits, they have access to the outdoors.

Laying hen housing systems: cage, free run, free range (from left to right).

Chicken and turkey

When shopping for chicken and turkey meat, the “free run” label is meaningless in terms of providing additional welfare benefits. This is because in Canada, chickens and turkeys raised for meat are never housed in cages. Therefore, they are all “free run” unless they get to go outside, in which case they are considered “free range.”

In fact, if you see “free run” on a package of chicken in Canada, you should also see a tiny star next to it accompanied by tiny print near the bottom of the package that reads, “like all chickens in Canada.” This disclaimer is legally required so customers aren’t misled.

In Canada, all chickens raised for meat are cage-free (as seen above).

But I thought “free run” was better?

While freeing egg-laying hens from cages is a step in the right direction, it does not guarantee them a good life. There needs to be special attention to housing and care to ensure their needs are met. Similarly, just because all meat chickens and turkeys in Canada are already raised in a cage-free environment, does not necessarily mean they had good welfare.

Turkeys raised in a free run housing system, with little space to move.

That’s why we recommend looking for animal welfare certified labels such as Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership when purchasing eggs, chicken, and turkey. You can be sure that products with these labels were raised cage-free and with special attention to the needs of the birds.

Decoding labels

To summarize, here’s a handy guide to help you decode what labels mean when you’re purchasing eggs, chicken and turkey.

Cage-free: Birds are not housed in cages. They are housed in either free run or free range systems. Remember, cage-free is standard for chickens and turkeys raised for meat, so this label is only meaningful for eggs.

Free run: Birds are housed in a cage-free indoor environment. They are free to move around and have more space than birds housed in cages, but do not get to go outdoors. Remember, this is standard for chickens and turkeys raised for meat, so this label is only meaningful for eggs.

Free range: Similar to free run, free range birds are also housed in a cage-free environment. They, too, have more space to move around their environment than birds housed in cages. However, unlike free run birds, free range birds do get to go outside when the weather is nice. Birds are kept indoors for the winter and on rainy days. This label is meaningful for eggs, chicken and turkey meat.

Organic: Organic birds are free range and allowed outside whenever the weather is nice. Birds are kept indoors or under shelter when the weather is not good. When a farm receives organic certification, it means an auditor has visited the farm – usually once a year – to make sure all the program Standards (i.e. the rules) are being followed.

Free range laying hens enjoying a sunny day.

What should I buy?

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, eggs, chicken, and turkey for Thanksgiving dinners are in high demand. Prioritize animal welfare for your holiday meals and desserts with these welfare-friendly choices.

  • Vegetarian or vegan

There are many vegetarian and vegan options that can make delicious Thanksgiving dishes. Look for them in your grocery store the next time you are shopping.

  • Animal welfare certification

For those planning on serving meat or using eggs, show your guests you care by purchasing an animal welfare certified product. The certifications we recommend are Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership and Organic. With these programs, an auditor visits the farms to ensure the standards are being met.

  • Free run and free range

If certified products are not available, look for free run, or even better, free range eggs for all your baking needs! When buying chicken and turkey, don’t be fooled by the free run label! Look for free range instead for those added welfare benefits.

For more information, we’ve put together a more comprehensive guide to help you demystify other food labels. For any questions, feel free to reach out to our farm animal welfare team.

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