Have you finally found the fresh food jackpot? No, not by a long shot. The designation “free-range” is among the biggest frauds in the food industry. Trust me, I know this firsthand. On a Harley road trip last summer, Deb and I decided to ride to northern New England to tour what is arguably the most widely promoted free-range chicken operation in the area. We found nice folk and a super clean processing facility, but the concept of the chickens having free range, as we suspected, was just that—a concept with no substance. Here’s the ugly reality. The words “free-range” mark a USDA designation and mean only that an animal has access to the outdoors. Really?
In Just Food, by James E. McWilliams, you will read, “The everyday reality of free-range chicken is profoundly disturbing. A free-range chicken generally has 1 to 2 square feet of maneuverability inside a factory shed instead of the conventional 50 square inches.” Yup, inches. As Just Food points out, “In most free-range egg farms, chickens are packed into a shed so tightly that most cannot make it to the narrow passageway leading to that single patch of cement representing the great outdoors.” It is clear that most free-range chickens are loaded with antibiotics and growth-promoting drugs. Talk about a festering stewpot. Feed these top-heavy, sad birds a crummy diet of industrial food and animal by-products and you may as well be dining on field rats. No thanks.
The great Joel Salatin, proprietor of Polyface Farm, will tell you that chickens “will not range for food, so they will not get up, walk out of the building and come back in. They simply stay in the building and don’t range.” Now you have the real free-range story. Not exactly what you might have hoped for, now is it? Free-range chicken farming, as practiced by Joel Salatin, features mobile coops, always rotated to fresh pasture, ideally behind a herd of grass-fed-to-finish beeves. Browse the Polyface Farm or Pat’s Pastured websites to continue mining lifesaving intel on true free-range chickens and eggs. And while you are in the hunt, be comforted in the knowledge that I have introduced you to the absolute number one guy in America when it comes to free-range and grass farming in general. Joel is the real deal. Head out to the farm, and make it great week.