"Free-Range" Is Misleading
The entire discussion about free-range animal products distracts consumers from the critical fact that animal suffering and death are an inherent part of "factory farming."
Because of minimal provisions and oversight, animals living on free-range or cage-free farms in the United States - whether for meat, dairy, or egg production - are subject to atrocious living conditions. The free-range label does not accurately describe what living conditions are like for the animals.
Once they reach a marketable weight or decline in their milk or egg production, the animals are brutally transported for inhumane slaughter, exactly the same as their non-free-range counterparts.
"Free-range" does not alter the basic system of factory farming; it simply gives the industry a friendly-sounding term that masks its inhumane treatment of animals.
The Lives of Animals Raised for Meat
Painful Conditions Whether Free-range or Caged
Chickens, turkeys, and pigs raised for meat have been genetically selected to convert food into meat at an astounding rate. This has resulted in numerous health issues for the animals, including having bones and ligaments too weak to fully support their weight, and heart and lung problems.
They are in constant pain, and broken bones are fairly common among the animals. Living on a free-range farm does not alter their biological reality of being on the brink of structural collapse.
Free-range Dairy Cows
A dairy cow, whether free-range or not, is impregnated every year in order to stimulate milk production. Her calf is taken away from her shortly after it is born, an injustice that is extremely distressing to any mammal mother and baby.
Male calves born to dairy cows are killed and sold as veal or low-grade beef when they are between a few weeks and four months old, whether they are born on a free-range farm or not. The males, after all, do not produce milk and have not been bred to produce the quantity of meat of beef cattle, so they are seen as essentially useless by-products of the dairy industry - something that does not change just because a farm is "free-range."
The fact that veal calves are born as a direct result of the dairy industry leads to the saying, "Every glass of milk and slice of cheese comes with an invisible serving of veal."
The traditional veal calf crates would not qualify as free-range. Calves born on a free-range dairy farm can be sold to non-free-range farms or raised as "free-range veal," being allowed to graze in the field during their very short lives.
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Male chicks of the layer breed of are killed at the hatchery when they are a day or two old, regardless of whether or not the females are being sold to cage-free facilities.
Cage-free hens, like their caged counterparts, are routinely de-beaked without anesthesia and typically have food and water withheld for up to a week or two at a time on occasion in order to force another cycle of egg production.
Labels such as "free-range" and "cage-free" are used primarily as a marketing ploy to make conscientious consumers believe they are purchasing products from farms that treat their animals humanely and kindly, where the animals spend most of their time grazing and enjoying the outdoors. In fact, those labels are only very loosely defined and are hardly regulated, with no third-party verification of conditions on the farms. Living standards for free-range and cage-free animals can be shockingly cruel.
The guidelines that exist indicate that free-range birds must have access to the outdoors, but there are no specific rules for living conditions. This means that chickens may be crammed into a shed (rather than a cage) without sufficient room to spread their wings.
But if there is a narrow door leading to a small area outside the shed, then this would meet the criterion for having access to the outdoors - even if that area is a patch of dirt polluted with fecal matter from the chickens. Only a few birds out of hundreds, or even thousands, may be able to access the area outside the shed; but because there is an "opportunity" for birds to get out, this arrangement would qualify as "free-range."
Information about Vegan Living
Free-range Guidelines for Animals Raised for Meat
Free-range cows, pigs, and sheep must eat grass and have some access to the outdoors. However, no specific requirements are in place regarding the size of the range, herd density, or other treatment. The farms, which of course seek to maximize their profits, are basically left to police themselves, and consumers are left to trust a meaningless label on a package of meat.
"Free-range" and "cage-free" describe, to a small extent, the environment of the farm on which the animals are raised. But the guidelines do not provide any protections against common farming practices such as castration, de-horning, branding, and de-beaking without anesthesia or painkillers. Laws prohibiting animal cruelty exempt farm animals, so actions that would be illegal (not to mention morally reprehensible) if done to a cat or dog are sanctioned when perpetrated against farm animals.
"Free-range" and "cage-free" do not mean that animals are treated with any kindness when it comes to transporting them to the slaughterhouse and killing them. As with all other factory farmed animals, they are handled very violently in transport and are brutally killed (frequently while fully awake and capable of feeling pain) in conditions very few of us could stomach.
The Bottom Line
Many consumers would like to take comfort in buying free-range meat, dairy, and eggs. However, the lack of protections afforded to farm animals in free-range or cage-free facilities, along with the animals’ cruel slaughter after life on the farm, means that consumers are easily misled about the living conditions of these animals. While free-range farm animals may have incrementally improved living conditions over their counterparts on “standard” factory farms, their suffering is much too great to ignore or accept. Conscientious consumers should not allow themselves to be placated by a label that is essentially meaningless.
I Welcome Your Comments!
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on November 15, 2014:
@My Bell -- Thanks for your comments! Yes, the consumer dollar is the best way to express what is truly important to us. It can be challenging to mindfully purchase or not purchase products based on ethics, but I think it makes a difference!
Marcelle Bell on November 15, 2014:
I am not vegan but I choose not to eat meat and also do not drink milk, eat products with gelatin and try to minimize all other animal products. I think it's a path for me to get there. I appreciate and support much of what you say in this hub. Ideally, as consumers, we would abstain from eating all meat in order to drive this cruel industry out of business but I know that is not realistic. My hope is that people by large would move to a more plant-based diet, eat much less meat, and when eating meat, do not purchase anything that you know for sure is "factory farmed". Economics will save more animals and allow for more humane treatment. Thanks for writing this hub.
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on April 05, 2014:
@Ravissante: Ah, the irony! Those ads are automatically generated. They must be placed based on keywords, so that if the advertising program sees words like cows, farms, and chickens in the lens it mistakenly assumes that readers are folks who are interested in whatever it is they're selling. As it turns out, that is exactly the opposite of what we're about!
If you have any specific questions regarding your interest in vegan living, you are welcome to send me a message.
Ravissante on April 05, 2014:
I love your site which I just thankfully found. Lots of interesting information and provided me with exactly the help I was looking for. Now, I'm trying to understand why there are so many anti-vegan advertisements on this page? I saw one for cattle chutes, sheep sales and Canadian Dairy producers. I'm sincerely confused and would like help to understand
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on April 05, 2014:
@jenpet: Thought-provoking, indeed! My *personal* opinion -- and you certainly don't need my "permission" -- is that this is totally fine. I know other vegans who believe that owning any animal is wrong or that taking the family hens' eggs is wrong. (I say this only to illustrate that vegans are not a monolithic group; there are a variety of opinions and convictions among us.)
My understanding here is that your beloved fowl are laying unfertilized eggs as part of their natural cycle, so you're not taking away her baby eggs. Also, a friend of mine who has chickens (and uses the eggs) says that when she didn't take the eggs, they just rotted eventually, which was pretty unpleasant.
For me, the question here may be phrased as whether or not you feel that you are exploiting your chickens. Are they egg-making machines that you tolerate because you want the eggs, or are they respected, cared-for animals that happen to provide eggs? If you could imagine yourself as one of your hens, do you believe something precious is being stolen from you? Do you imagine yourself happy/content with the relationship?
If you conclude that you have an honorable, symbiotic relationship, then you should feel at peace. This arrangement may be wrong for your friend, which is fine since he can choose how he lives his own life. But just because it's wrong for him does not mean that it is wrong for you.
And that's my two cents!
jenpet on April 05, 2014:
I read your article with interest. I'm not vegan, but try very hard to make informed choices about my families diet and food choices and believe most of the population is hugely under-informed which needs to change.
My question is this - we have two chickens, which are indeed totally free-range - their available area is around 1000m2 - they're pretty fond of popping into the kitchen looking for cat biscuits too! They provide all the eggs we eat, we never ever buy any. I often discuss this with a vegan friend of mine. Is this still wrong? In a moral sense I am happy with these eggs (which even he can't argue are a very nutritious rich food for my two boys!) but he still maintains it is wrong.
Just interested in another perspective, and thank you again for an interesting & thought provoking article
SteelersFan1 on April 02, 2014:
@ThreeQuarters2Day: Factory farming is widespread in developed nations. According to the Worldwatch Institute, as of 2006, 74 percent of the world's poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs were produced this way. In the U.S., as of 2000 four companies produced 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 60 percent of pigs, and 50 percent of chickens and according to its National Pork Producers Council, 80 million of its 95 million pigs slaughtered each year are reared in industrial settings.
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on April 01, 2014:
@ThreeQuarters2Day: Thank you so very much for your thoughts. I certainly agree with you that there are farmers who care about the animals in their charge. I had a friend in college who was absolutely devastated when her family had to sell their 40 dairy cows because they could no longer compete with large farms. My friend knew all of those cows by name and loved them. I met a small dairy farmer in New York State, who desperately wanted to stay in business, who did not want to shoot his cows full of growth hormone but was afraid of no longer being able to compete with corporate farms. And I spoke to the owner of a farm that had some hundreds of dairy cows who was very excited to use growth hormone to have the cows in his care produce as much milk as possible. So, as you pointed out, there are all kinds of farms and farmers.
One of the problems with the Free Range label is that there are very few rules and regulations behind it. So a consumer can't tell when they go to buy beef, chicken, pork, dairy, or eggs at their local supermarket whether or not these animals were, in fact, able to graze or move around comfortably while living at the farm. If the industry (farming or other) is left to essentially police itself, history has repeatedly shown that their bottom line is more important than any other factor. (I'm talking about the industry as a whole, not the individual farmers who are willing to take a strong stand and do the right thing under difficult economic circumstances.)
According to Food and Water Watch, more than half of the livestock in the U.S. comes from only 5% of farms. So I would say that, in fact, the vast majority of folk are consuming animal products from factory farms. (I try to be careful with sources. The meat, dairy, and egg industries have their agenda. PeTA tends to be extremist in its own agenda. So I look for some sensible middle ground when getting facts that can be manipulated.)
While I understand that some level of appropriate treatment has been evolving regarding the transportation and slaughter of animals, there are also agencies that are continuing to report "downed" animals that are injured and/or abandoned and other incredibly inhumane treatment. Now, this may not happen at truly free range farms. But the line between free-range and not can, as I've indicated, be terribly fuzzy.
Dawn Romine from Nebraska on March 31, 2014:
Although I can respect your decision not all of what you say is true. The majority of the beef in the US does not come from factory farms, and the term factory farm is misleading in itself. I have lived in the Midwest (Nebraska & Oklahoma)all of my adult life. Cows give birth outside, in the fields, in plenty of space. I have known cowboys, ranchers and farmers to stay up 20 hrs a day to tend and watch the cows to make sure the calves are born healthy.
These calves live and graze on acres of land for the majority of their life, over a year, it is only the last couple of months they are placed in feedlots to be fed a concentrated nutritionally balanced diet. The biggest reason for large gains per day is low stress. Stressed animals do not gain weight, stressed animals get sick, sick animals cost farmers and ranchers money. It is in their best interest to keep them healthy.
Likewise the same thing when they do go to market to be processed into food to feed millions of people. There is a chemical reaction in stressed cattle that actually turns meat an off color. The days of cattle prods in trucks are over, have been for a while. The livestock industry has adopted the practices of Temple Grandin, everything from placement of straw in trucks to placement of mirrors and where handlers stand when loading and unloading.
There are bad apples in every population, including humans, there are parents who should not have kids, there are bad police officers, and there are bad livestock producers. But the whole of the industry does care about the health and well being of the animals in their charge.
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on March 30, 2014:
@lawrence01: It's important for us to know the facts about our food so that we can make our own, individual decisions about what make sense for us and our families. Without knowledge, our choices are meaningless. Thanks for your comments.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on March 29, 2014:
Sadly where the United States goes the rest of the world soon follows. Thank you for the points you mention in the lens. I don't think that I'll ever be a vegan but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't care for the animals that are our food. We should
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on March 28, 2014:
@Sir Daniel UK: Thank you. I am touched by your compliment.
Danny Gibson from Northampton on March 28, 2014:
There is doubtful no more deserving lens of that 'Purple Star' than this!
You have made me consider what I eat. That is the best compliment I can pay a writer!
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on March 24, 2014:
@SteelersFan1: The reality that most people cannot access and afford animal products from truly free-range family farms (not all family farms are free-range) means that the vast majority of animal products consumed in the United States are saturated in cruelty.
And you're right -- this system is not purely accidental. Agribusiness interests have lobbied hard to gain political and economic advantages, forcing many family farms out of business and leaving consumers stuck with little opportunity to make informed, compassionate, healthy choices when shopping for food.
While most people are extremely uncomfortable with the reality of animal cruelty inherent on factory farms, it can be overwhelming to commit to a vegan lifestyle. My hope is that people will be inspired to do what they can to minimize the suffering of animals. This may mean only one vegan meal per week for some; others may enjoy cruelty-free meals on a regular basis; still others will go 100% vegan. I'm delighted that you have found the inspiration to become vegan once more!
And it's true that I try not to get too graphic in describing the horrors of life for animals on the farm because it's so upsetting to me. I figure if anyone wants the gory details, they can watch Meet Your Meat or check out PeTA's website!
SteelersFan1 on March 24, 2014:
Just to let you know I am biased, I'm the father of vegival's boys and I have been and recently returned to eating vegan. She makes excellent points, but one thing was not said. That is how the male chicks are killed. They are tossed in a grinder while still alive. No compassion. I grew up in a farming community and am well aware that small family farms are usually as compassionate as they can be, but family farms have been disappearing since the 80's because of a political decision designed to be in favor of factory farms. I don't know about dairy products, but in the US 98% of all meat (beef, chicken and others) come from factory farms.
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on March 24, 2014:
@suepogson: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I think that small "family" farms are an excellent alternative for those who choose to eat meat and dairy products in the most humane way possible. You have highlighted some of these differences very well. You can't avoid the reality of the animals having a "really bad last day" on a small-scale farm, but at least when animals are raised by people who know their names and respect their nature, the dynamic is vastly different from life at a factory farm. The issues I raise involve the cruelty inherent to large-scale factory farming in which animals are no longer treated as living beings but as "food products."
suepogson on March 24, 2014:
I think you're making really important points here and that this information should be more widely available. Hoever, there IS the other side of the coin - small though it might be. Not all 'free-range' farmers use the term as a selling point. I breed chickens for meat (sorry - perhaps I shouldn't mention that here) and whilst the lives of the birds are not long they are pretty good. They live in warm stables with free access to a big outside run (no small door) , they are not cramped at all and have greenery to play in. They are not pumped with hormones or any other chemicals. They are not force-fed and they are not pumped up with water or given drugs to stop them urinating (both of which artificially plump up the body). They taste delicious (sorry again!) I also have hens for eggs. they are completely free range and finding the eggs is a little like and Easter challenge at times. If a hen gets broody her eggs are untouched. I hope I'm doing something to make the lives of a few food animals easier.
I eat very little meat but can't imagine ever going vegan - and I admire you! Thanks for a great article
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on March 23, 2014:
@ecogranny: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. These are difficult issues with far-reaching implications. I'm really looking forward to checking out your special contributor selections!
Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on March 23, 2014:
Thank you for your courage and will to share this information. While I am not vegan, and don't know if ever I will be, I do make an effort to get to know the farmers who produce my eggs, butter, milk and cream.
I pay a lot more for dairy products from farmers with small truly grass-fed operations, more like we see in Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm. When I was a little girl, I lived on a farm that raised its animals in a similar fashion, as did many of the farmers in our region at the time. We knew all our cows, the bull, our hens and rooster, and our goats by name.
I realize that for most people, finding such farms is difficult and that there are not enough to come close to meeting demand. Because of this realization, I am trying to build more vegan meals and dishes into our diet. So far, I must admit, we haven't enjoyed many of them, but I will keep trying recipes that appeal.
I encourage you to add your vegan recipes and book reviews that focus on whole foods to the plexo on my page titled, "I'm the Whole Grains & Whole Foods Contributor on Squidoo." The more we share such recipes and resources, the more likely some of us can begin to imagine embracing a vegan lifestyle.
Pipa-bipa on March 23, 2014:
This is horrible beyond description. Cruel world. I stopped eating meat many years ago, not for ideological reasons but because it doesn't fit my lifestyle. But after reading this I'm glad I've made my choice. Thanks for bringing it up.
SteveKaye on March 20, 2014:
Thank you for publishing this lens on such an important topic.
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on March 20, 2014:
@TerriCarr: Thanks! I think that the prospect of becoming totally vegan is overwhelming for some people. That's why I stress that people can make a difference any time they choose a cruelty-free meal.
TerriCarr on March 20, 2014:
Nice lens, Vegival. I admit I find it hard to make it all the way to being vegan. However, although there are many inhumane farms, there are a growing number of humane ones. You simply cannot trust the labels. You would have to personally visit one or know someone who has had a chance to get an honest, inside perspective. Maybe a future project for me.....or you :-)
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on January 24, 2013:
@TransplantedSoul: Being vegetarian is a strong stance against cruelty to animals! Thank you!
TransplantedSoul on January 23, 2013:
Being vegetarian - the treatment of animals was a major factor. Veganism is even better - but that is a target for another time.
Valerie Bloom (author) from Pennsylvania, USA on July 28, 2012:
@YogaAngel: Agreed, 100%!
YogaAngel on July 28, 2012:
Even if some people aren't that concerned about animal welfare, it is still pretty disgusting that we eat such contaminated food, laced with antibiotics, and chemicals, and resistant strains of bacteria!!