The term “free-range” brings to mind verdant pastures, blue skies and chickens happily milling about. In reality, it can be a very different picture.
The term was originally used in ranch country as a legal description of areas where herds could be grazed without fences. While beef, bison and other meat may show up in the store as “free-range,” the USDA sets free-range standards only for poultry. These standards require only that birds have some access to the outdoors. On some farms, they’re given access to grasslands and unlimited exercise. But in large-scale operations (including organic ones), they may be kept in the coop for the first five weeks of their lives, by which time feeding routines are firmly established. Since they’re often slaughtered at seven weeks, the birds never develop the habit of stepping out the door.
If you find an artisan farmer whose chickens actually roam around eating what chickens were intended to eat (grass, grubs and insects), the meat can be remarkably different from that of their cooped up cousins. It may be higher in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and can be so much tastier than your run-of-the-mill roaster that you may swear you’re eating a different animal. Finding pastured poultry may take some pecking around. Farmer’s markets are a great place to get to know local producers and find out what your dinner had for dinner.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.