The "Free-Range" Myth / by The Green Medium

Hello, dear readers! Upon a quick brainstorm in search of something both relevant to The Green Medium and myself that I could write about, I came to the recent trend towards vegetarianism and veganism in our society that I’m sure you have all noticed to some extent. I will assume that any of you who are inclined towards such a meat-free lifestyle have done so responsibly and informedly, however, with this recent rise in consciousness towards the well-being of our farm-animal friends has come labels like “free-range” and “grass-fed” on a lot of our meat, along with a raise in price and presumed moral standing, that are perhaps not as well informed when undertaken as a dietary choice.  

While a meat-free lifestyle is somewhat of a big step, buying more “humane” meats at the grocery store is not really a huge lifestyle change if you can afford it. This is why, I think, that despite the large amount of readily available information on the subject, many people obviously continue to assume that “free-range” foodstuffs have been treated at least notably better than their factory-farmed counterparts. While I am sure this is often the case, the difference between the two is just as often not so much notable as technical.

To begin with, labels such as “free-range” or “grass-fed” are not certifiable in Canada, which is to say that there is no one to inspect or make sure that animals are actually being given the benefit of these things. For reasons like this, it is possible that a chicken sold as having lived “free-range” may have lived uncaged with access to the outdoors, but may have also been raised in an overcrowded barn packed wall to wall and have had only an hour of time outside each day.

There are also labels, less common of course, that can be put on meat packaging that does require some sort of verification from a separate organization or program. Labels such as “BC SPCA”, “Organic”, or “Certified Local Sustainable” require the farm or wherever an animal is being raised for slaughter to conform to certain standards. This is, however a relatively new phenomenon, with the first organization of this sort in Canada only having existed since 2001. As well, each certifier has different standards that can vary widely, and there is no way to know for sure that they are necessarily what you might personally think is humane enough without researching an individual organization.

For example, certification to be organic often requires that no pharmaceuticals are used on animals. While this may be generally a good thing, it means that practices still commonly used on “humane” animals such as debeaking and dehorning among a myriad of other atrocities are simply carried out without anaesthetic or painkillers of any kind, to avoid corrupting the purely organic life lived by said animal. I won’t go into all the horrible things done to animals because personally that’s not what I am trying to spend my day reading about, but it bears mentioning that there are a lot of horrible things done to animals in the industry that are considered common practice and not necessarily looked at in the light of whether they are humane or not by a certifier who has been around these things long enough to accept them.

In short, like anything else you buy, it’s probably a good idea to do a light skim on the interwebs anytime you take a label or claim into account when choosing food. I will finish off by letting you know, dear consumer and reader, that you might also want to look at some research on “organic” produce if you ever feel like saving a bit of money at the grocery store.