"Humane" Farming

What do all the labels mean?

"Just because it says free-range does not mean that it is welfare-friendly."—Dr. Charles Olentine, editor of Egg Industry magazine, an industry trade journal1

The first thing that one needs to know about labels such as "free-range", "free-run", "cage-free", and "natural", is that legally, they mean very little. There are no laws specifying what these labels constitute, and hence, no third-party certification to ensure that rules are followed. (Farms that use the "free-range" label, et cetera, are simply put on "the honour system" and expected to regulate themselves.) The "organic" label does actually have a set of laws it must follow, as well as third-party inspectors, but it has its own problems. Learn more about organic farming

While small family farms still exist, they are outnumbered by so-called free-range and organic facilities that, in many ways, bear a striking resemblance to factory farms.

(Video from "Coming Home", by Peaceful Prairie.)

"If you go to a free-range farm and expect to see a bunch of chickens galloping around in pastures, you're kidding yourself."—Richard Lobb, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council

When you hear the words "free-range egg-laying hens" or "free-roaming chicken", you probably imagine these birds, whether they are raised for meat or for their eggs, roaming in the grass, pecking at bugs, and generally enjoying themselves.

This pleasant image could not be further from the truth in many cases. While small, free-range farms do exist, it is far more common for free-range chicken farms to house hundreds of thousands of chickens in only a few enormous sheds. 

A sickly hen from a free range farm.

This chicken was rescued from a "free range" egg farm. (Photo: Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary)

Sometimes, a door is cut at the end of these sheds, leading to a small gravel or mud lot.  This almost useless concession allows these farms to announce that their chickens have access to the outdoors. In other cases, however, the birds are not allowed outside at all. Scott Akom, an employee of the Horizon Foods Organic and Free Range Farm explained his refusal to allow the chickens access to the outdoors thusly: "Free-roaming and cage-free mean the same thing. The chickens are free to go wherever they want. Inside the chicken house."2

Free-range animals also tend to suffer from the same genetics and are fed the same steady diet of antibiotics as their factory farmed counterparts. Chickens are still raised to reach their goal weight early, so that they can be slaughtered at 45 days of age—straining their limbs and resulting in respiratory problems, heart attacks, and a condition known as "splayed legs."  As Terry Swagerty, farm expert at Washington State University explains, "They're not bred for mobility. They're bred for hogging down food."

 They suffer the same ammonia burns on their breasts and the same lung problems from sitting constantly in their own waste, since there are no rules regarding sanitation.3

A chicken suffering from splayed legs.

Farmed chickens grow too quickly for their bodies to support them.  This one is suffering from splayed legs.

And just like in factory farms, male chicks born to the egg industry are useless; they are ground up in trash compactors or simply thrown live into dumpsters to suffocate under the weight of hundreds of other chicks. Their sisters are still raised to lay eggs, and thus must be debeaked and then slaughtered when they are considered "spent" at only 1 1/2 or 2 of years of age.4 (Chickens can live ten years or more.)

In 2007, one investigator of a "free range" facility reported learning of 80,000 "spent hens" gassed to death within only four days and then packed into steel drums to be transported to a landfill.5

Male pigs are still castrated without anesthesia. Cattle are still dehorned, branded, and tail-docked. To qualify as "free-range," cattle, pigs, and sheep must only have "access to the range," but no laws are in place specifying how much space must be allowed, nor what "the range" must be like.

Another sickly hen from a free range farm.

Another chicken rescued from a "free range" egg farm (Photo: Tribe of Heart)

Free-range animals are also killed in the same slaughterhouses as factory farmed animals, and in the same brutal way. They travel 36 to 52 hours in the same trucks, without food or water and exposed to the elements, to get there.6 7 

Are these circumstances better for the animals involved? Certainly. Naturally it is better for a chicken to have 67 square inches of space than only 50, and it is better that 100 turkeys out of 10,000 access to the outdoors than none at all. But would most people consider this sort of treatment "humane" or "compassionate", however? Probably not.

The "SPCA Certified" label is well-known in British Columbia . It was created by the BC SPCA and modeled after the RSPCA's "Freedom Food" label. The standards of these two labels intend "to provide farm animals with the opportunity to express behaviours that promote physical and psychological well-being."8 They do not allow battery cages or gestation crates and require rooting material for pigs. Dairy cows must not have their tails docked, but pigs and sheep can, and chickens can still be debeaked.  Farrowing crates, which do not allow mother pigs to turn around, nest, or move away from nursing piglets, are permitted for up to 28 days.9

It is worth noting that the RSPCA's "Freedom Food" label has indicated time and time again that it is less than trustworthy. In March 2007, for example, secret investigations at different farms bearing the "Freedom Food" label revealed egregious abuses, such as "dead ducks which appear not to have been removed properly - including one that looks flattened - alongside filthy drinking water and a distressed duck suffering from... a twisted neck."10 And in July of 2008, Five News in England visited a "Freedom Food"-certified establishment to discover thousands of emaciated, nearly featherless egg-laying chickens crowded into a shed.11

Watch a news report from this abuse case:

Organic animal products

Organic meat, eggs, and dairy are, in general, a small improvement over similar products from conventional or free-range farms. They come from animals, who, according to the rules of the organic label, are allowed to "engage in species-specific behaviours." There are requirements for how much daylight and what type of shelter must be provided, as well as how clean that shelter must be. In BC, organic poultry must be allowed outside access six hours a day, and most organic livestock must have access to pasture 120 days per year.12

There are exceptions, however: Any organic animal can be kept indoors if the farm deems it necessary due to emergency situations, health, well-being, and danger, or the "stage of production."  Additionally, dairy cows can be kept in "tie stalls" while lactating--and due to repeated cycles of impregnation and birth, dairy cows actually spend the majority of their lives lactating. Males kept for breeding purposes and young animals are also exempt from rules pertaining to outdoor access.13 

Organic farms are subject to occasional third-party inspections which are meant to ensure that the rules of organic agriculture are adhered to.  There are no formal requirements stating when or how often, however.14

Are they as humane as one would hope?

Free range, organic turkey poults, debeaked.

These baby turkeys are considered "free range and organic", yet they have had the ends of their beaks surgically mutilated so that they will drop off, leaving severely shortened upper beaks. (Photo: East Bay Animal Advocates)

While researching for his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, author Michael Pollan visited an organic egg farm. On this farm the baby chickens must stay inside until 5 weeks of age, at which point the small doors to the outside are opened. 2 weeks later, the chickens are slaughtered. Organic farmers often want to avoid allowing their birds outdoors, since these "defenseless, crowded, and genetically identical birds are exquisitely vulnerable to infection."15

Organic animals are at particular risk for disease, since they do not receive regular antibiotics or the standard medicated chick starter food and water as birds on conventional farms. Additionally organic farms must in most cases remove the "organic" status from any animal receiving synthetic medication, something they would prefer not to do if possible.16

Even organic animals can be legally subjected to the same mutilations as those on factory farms, and while painkillers and anesthetics are "recommended", they are not a requirement. (The only exception is for the dehorning of cows, for which pain medication is required.) Dehorning, debeaking and detoeing, castrating, and branding are all legal. 17

Male chicks are still useless to organic egg farms, and are killed.18 In BC, for example, there are no organic hatcheries for egg-laying chickens at all; chicks come from conventional hatcheries, where males are simply thrown away or ground up alive. 19

And just as in conventional farming, the male calves born to ever-pregnant dairy cows can be taken from their mothers almost immediately and sold, either for beef or veal. 20 The dairy cows themselves, who can live into their 20's, are often considered "cull cows" at a young age, and slaughtered, though some sources claim that organic dairy cattle live much longer than their non-organic counterparts.21 When they are no longer producing milk, however, some farms sell these cows into conventional farming to meet the same fate as factory farmed dairy cattle.22 They will be replaced by their daughters.

Even organic egg-laying hens are considered "spent" at only 2 or so years old (when chickens can potentially live more than ten years)23, and are trucked away to slaughter.

Free-range, organic turkey with the ends of toes and beak cut off.

This "free range, organic" turkey has had the end of her beak cut off, as well as the ends of her toes. (Photo: East Bay Animal Advocates)

Since they are often the same breeds as factory-farmed chickens, organic chickens who live more than a month and a half suffer "leg problems, which become more acute as body weight increases beyond the 41-day life span for which they were bred." 24

The other troubling matter in regards to organic animal products is that organic animals, like free-range and factory farmed animals, can be transported in the same inhumane way--in large trucks without food or water.  The rules for organic animals still allow them to be transported for up to 24 hours without rest.25   They usually end up at the same slaughterhouses (though there are at least 2 organic slaughterhouses in BC26), killed either before or after all the non-organic animals, so that the equipment can be sterilized and cleared. 27 28

There is no special "humane slaughter" for organic animals; they die in the same manner that factory farmed animals do.29

I have unfortunately been inside slaughterhouses and can tell you that the animals are not willingly walking up to the end of the kill line and sticking their necks out. These animals fight with every bit of strength they have left at the end of that kill line. They fight to get out of that kill line. They don't want to die, and they know it's coming. They see, and they know exactly what's going to happen to them. There is absolutely no truth that any process of slaughtering is humane. From the moment those animals are taken from those trucks and forced through the slaughtering process, it is the most inhumane treatment that I have ever witnessed. —Cayce Mell30

  1. 1. Olentine, Charles. "Welfare and the Egg Industry: The Best Defense Is an Offense," Egg Industry, October 2002, p. 24.
  2. 2. LaFay, Laura "Into the Frying Pan," Style Weekly,14 April 2004.
  3. 3. Thomas Reid Farms, A comparison between Conventional Natural or Specialty and Certified Organic Chicken
  4. 4. Compassion Over Killing, "How Free is Free-Range?"
  5. 5. The Humane Myth, A Rare Glimpse Inside a Free Range Egg Facility
  6. 6. Compassion Over Killing, "How Free is Free-Range?"
  7. 7. Hansen, Darah, "Incredible Number of Animals Die on Trip to Slaughterhouse", Vancouver Sun, 10 December 2008
  8. 8. BC SPCA, SPCA Certified, Frequently Asked Questions
  9. 9. BC SPCA, Animal Welfare Standards at a Glance
  10. 10. Smithers, Rebecca Film shows neglect of pigs, turkeys and ducks sold under ethical label, The Guardian, 13 March 2007
  11. 11. The Humane Myth, Freedom Food Investigation
  12. 12. British Columbia Organic Industry Overview, Organic Animal Industry in British Columbia, December 2007
  13. 13. BC SPCA, Animal Welfare Standards at a Glance
  14. 14. BC SPCA, Animal Welfare Standards at a Glance
  15. 15. Pollan, Michael, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, 2006, page 172
  16. 16. British Columbia Organic Industry Overview, Organic Animal Industry in British Columbia, December 2007
  17. 17. BC SPCA, Animal Welfare at a Glance
  18. 18. Vartan, Starre, "Happy Eggs," E/The Environmental Magazine May-Jun. 2003
  19. 19. British Columbia Organic Industry Overview, Organic Animal Industry in British Columbia, December 2007
  20. 20. British Columbia Organic Industry Overview, Organic Animal Industry in British Columbia, December 2007
  21. 21. Jerseyland Organics, About Jerseyland Organics for Natural Cheeses and Beef
  22. 22. British Columbia Organic Industry Overview, Organic Animal Industry in British Columbia, December 2007
  23. 23. Veg.ca, Alternatives: What Do the Egg Labels Mean?, 29 Nov 2005
  24. 24. Cyber-Help for Organic Farmers, Selecting Organic Poultry Breeds, 2004
  25. 25. Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia, British Columbia Certified Organic Production Operation Policies and Management Standards (version 9), revised 2009 December
  26. 26. British Columbia Organic Industry Overview, Organic Animal Industry in British Columbia, December 2007
  27. 27. Triple C Beef, "Taking the Mystery Out of Meat"
  28. 28. Riddle, James A., "Why Eat Organic Meat?"
  29. 29. Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, Humane Choices
  30. 30. The Humane Myth Cayce Mell