Wait, is organic and free range supposed to be a better, that is tastier, product or just better for the environment?
While we're at it: If a chicken is free range it isn't organic. A free-range chicken eats wild bugs, and you can't certify that all the wild bugs that flew in ate an organic diet themselves.
My wife raises chickens, studies the issues extensively, and has a lot to say about free range, organic feed, organic chicken regimes, etc. They amount to animal cruelty. Some of the high points:
- Free range means the chickens are exposed to predators and avian diseases spread by smaller birds.
- Organic regimes forbid antibiotics and often vaccinations. A bird that catches some disease will either be dispatched to save the rest of the flock, or left to suffer and recover on its own without assistance - perhaps crippled - and meanwhile expose the rest of the flock. A number of poultry diseases are endemic among wild birds or prevalent in the enviornment. Young chicks are subject to coccidiosis and many of the survivors then live with damaged digestive systems. (Non-organic chicks are usually fed a coccidiostat in their early-weeks feed until their immune systems develop, or given a dose of antibiotic if the disease appears in the flock.) Marek's Disease, caused by a herpes family virus, is common. It produces partial paralysis, blindness, lymphoma, immune suppression, tumors, atherosclerosis, and a range of other painful and debilitating symptoms. Non-organc chicks are vaccinated against it. And so on.
- Free range means the chickens are in large groups rather than individual cages with a handful of birds in each. Chickens can keep track of the ranking of no more than about a hundred other individuals, so life in a larger group is a constant series of battles to reestablish dominance. In small group cages, on the other hand, the heirarchy is worked out quickly and peace generally prevails (or relative peace, depending on breed). This is partiularly a problem with commercial egg-laying breeds, which are noted for intra-species violence and cannabalism.
- Free range chickens are allowed to leave the barn in the day. But only the few who set up their teritory near the door actually get to leave. The rest are still effectively confined to the buildng in a mass of interacting birds.
- Commercial feeds from big-name animal feed suppliers are tightly quality controlled and well tuned to the birds nutritional neefd an their taste preferences (so they'll enjoy eating it and thus eat as much as they should). Organic feeds are noted for dangerously poor nutritional qualities, from bad formulation choices, variation between batches, and the use of ingredients that quickly lose their nutritional qualities during storage. With their high metabolism, an under- or mal-nourished chicken will becomes a damaged and debilitated chicken in just a few days.v
I could go on...