"Free-range." It's a relatively new term; it's slightly misunderstood; and it's used all the time regarding meat and dairy products. How would you define free-range? Is it something you have considered previously when choosing which products to buy at the grocery store or farmers market? Should free-range products be a priority for you and your family?
In the dictionary, free-range is defined as a method of husbandry where livestock and poultry are allowed to graze rather than being confined to a feedlot or small space, respectively. So that means the next time you are in the meat department you might be able to buy a package of pork chops clearly labeled as free-range, right? Wrong.
The United States Department Agriculture currently only has standards in place to label poultry as free-range if it meets the requirement. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service website, for a product to be labeled as free-range or free-roaming, the "producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." That is the only requirement, and it is rather vague since there is no regulation on the amount of time the chicken has access to the outdoors. The free-range standard determined by the USDA leaves me questioning just how "free" the chicken may have been to "range." In addition, the USDA free-range label does not address other animal welfare concerns such as beak cutting.
It is possible that you will find non-poultry products labeled as free-range, and that animal may in fact have led a life without confinement, but the producer did not earn that label from the USDA. Whole Foods has partnered with the Global Animal Partnership to provide their customers with a rating system for animal welfare practices so customers can make a more informed decision about the meat they buy. The ratings are determined by certifiers, who are trained by the Global Animal Partnership. The system is divided into five categories, ranging from: "Step 1: No Crates, No Cages" to "Step 5+: Animal-centered; entire life lived on the same farm."
If you are truly interested in the welfare of the animal products you purchase, the best approach would be to know where your food is coming from and get to know the farmer and his or her practices. This is much easier to do now as our food culture shifts to a farm-to-table mindset and farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups become more readily available. When you finally ask yourself whether to buy free-range or not to buy free-range, it will be a personal choice. By becoming educated about farming practices and agriculture, only then can we truly make informed choices about our food.