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Food label “fowl” play: the free run chicken myth

December 2, 2017

There are many labels on eggs, meat and dairy products and they can all be very confusing. But when it comes to chicken and eggs, “free range” and “free run” are particularly confusing labels for consumers to decode.

The “free run chicken” myth… a myth for turkeys too

“Free run” and “free range” can be meaningful labels to look for when it comes to purchasing eggs. After all, no one likes to think of chickens living in tiny, cramped cages. But in Canada, when it comes to purchasing chicken, the reality is that all chickens raised for meat (called ‘broiler chickens’) are cage-free. Yes, you read that correctly. Broiler chickens are never kept in cages. Therefore, they are all “free run” unless they get to go outside, in which case they are considered “free range”.

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

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 says “like all chickens in Canada”. This disclaimer is legally required on chicken meat if the term “free run” is used on the package so customers aren’t accidentally mislead. If you don’t see this disclaimer, you can report it to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and they will follow up with the food company.

This goes for turkey meat as well. Turkeys raised for meat are never housed in cages in Canada. Free run turkey housing is standard practice. If the turkeys get to go outside, they are labeled “free range”. The same food labeling rule applies to turkey meat labeled as free run, so get in touch with the CFIA if you see a misleading label on turkey.

Farmed turkeys raised indoors.

But I thought free run was better?

When it comes to egg-laying chickens (also called “laying hens”), free run can be better than the alternative: cages. Currently, over 90% of Canada’s laying hens are kept in cages. For this reason, looking for cage-free labels like “free run” or “free range” on eggs can make a difference in the life of the laying hen.

Hens housed in battery cages. Over 90% of Canada’s egg-laying hens are raised this way. Broiler chickens and turkeys are not.

However, just freeing hens from cages does not guarantee them a good life. Similarly, just because all broiler chickens and turkeys in Canada are already raised in a cage-free environment does not necessarily mean they were raised in humane conditions. That’s why we recommend looking for Organic, or even better, SPCA Certified labels when purchasing eggs, chicken meat and turkey.

Decoding labels

Confused yet? Here’s a handy guide to help you decode what labels mean when you’re purchasing eggs, chicken and turkey.

Cage-free: Cage-free is simply a term used to say that the birds are not housed in cages. It means they are either free run or free range. This is common for turkeys and broiler chickens raised for meat in Canada, but not for egg laying hens.

Free run: Free run means the birds are housed in a cage-free indoor environment. They are free to move around and have more space to do so than birds housed in cages, but free run birds do not get to go outdoors. Free run is common practice for broiler chickens (raised for their meat) in Canada. For egg laying hens, free run is not common – they are usually kept in cages.

Free range: Similar to free run birds, 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. Since nice weather doesn’t happen all year in Canada, don’t be fooled into thinking that free range birds are going outside in the middle of a cold or rainy winter anywhere in the country. In fact, the egg industry tells its farmers that “access does not need to be provided if the daily forecasted high is below 15 degrees Celsius or above 30 degrees Celsius.” Birds are kept indoors when the weather is not good.

A flock of free range laying hens enjoying a sunny day.

Organic: Organic birds are always raised free range, being 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. Check out our factsheet to see how organic standards measure up to regular industry practices.

SPCA Certified: SPCA Certified birds are always cage-free, and can be either free run or free range. When a farm receives this certification, it’s a guarantee that an auditor has done a yearly inspection to ensure the farmer is following the program rules. The SPCA Certified program is a farm animal welfare certification developed by the BC SPCA in order to improve the lives of animals raised on farms in Canada. This certification ensures you get what you pay for when it comes to farm animal care.

At SPCA Certified egg farm, Rehoboth Farm, farmer Willy Driesen loves to spend time just hanging out with her laying hens.

What should I buy?

We recommend you buy SPCA Certified or Organic poultry and eggs. Both programs also certify pigs, sheep, beef cattle and dairy cattle, so look for these certifications on pork, lamb, beef and dairy products too. Find SPCA Certified retail locations here.

Grocery shopping isn’t that easy anymore. There are lots of confusing labels on food these days. We’ve put together a more comprehensive guide to help you demystify other food labels. Or, for more information, feel free to reach out to our farm animal welfare team.

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