What Does Free Range Really Mean?
'Free range' is meaningless outside very specific situations
Free range refers to food from animals, for example meat or eggs, that are produced from animals that have access to outdoor spaces. Usually, free range also stands for animals who have free access to graze or forage for food.
However, although the term "free range" brings to mind wide open spaces with animals living in nature, eating natural foods and soaking in the sunlight, there are no government regulations in place in the U.S. to ensure this is the case.
Therefore, it's important for producers to be clear about what exactly they mean when they say their food is "free range."
In addition, while all organically-raised food is automatically free range (certified organic standards require this), all food raised free range is not necessarily organic.
Synonyms for "free range" include: free-roaming, cage-free, and pasture-raised.
Free Range Legal Terminology
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined the term "free range" only for chickens, not for eggs or for other livestock, such as cattle.
For chickens, "free range" means the birds must "have access to the outdoors for an undetermined period each day, according to the USDA. In practice, this can mean the chickens live most of their lives outdoors, retreating to their coop only when weather or other factors require them to do so, or it can mean the chickens spend all their time in cramped, indoor pens that have a small door opened to the outside for just a few minutes each day.
Obviously, there's a huge difference between these two scenarios in terms of organic farming and humanely raised poultry, but either scenario meets the USDA definition.
Because the USDA rules for "free range" don't apply to other animals, or even to eggs, "free range" on those products is legally meaningless — producers can use the label in any way they want.
Again, it can mean the animals spent most of their lives in wide, outdoor spaces, or it can mean they occasionally got a glimpse of the sun through a small door, but never went outside themselves.
Free Range, Pasture Raised as Part of Certified Humane Program
There is one organization certifying farms for "free range" chicken. If poultry is certified "free range" as part of the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC)'s Certified Humane program, it means the chickens spend at least six hours a day outdoors (weather permitting), and have at least two square feet per bird in their pens. The Certified Humane certification covers a variety of issues.
"Pasture raised" HFAC certification (also an adjunct to the organization's Certified Humane certification) requires 108 square feet per bird, and for the chickens to be outdoors year-round in rotating fields, with shelter only to protect them from very inclement weather or from predators.
Free Range Organic Foods
Consumers who want truly free range products should consider buying certified organic products, since unlike the USDA's definition and enforcement of the term "free range," certified organic products must meet stringent criteria.
For example, a farm claiming free-range falsely will not likely get into trouble, but a farm falsely claiming organic certification will get into trouble and have to deal with major fines.