According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), each American eats approximately 94 pounds of chicken a year (1). 

The consumption of chicken is expected to grow in the coming years, and with this comes increased consumer awareness of the conditions in which chickens are grown (2).

When shopping for chicken, you might be wondering what the label “free-range” means. 

This article discusses what free-range chicken is, how it compares to conventionally raised chicken, and where to find it. 

What is free-range chicken? 

When you see free-range chicken at the grocery store, it makes sense if you assume that the chicken was free to graze in a grassy pasture. Yet, that’s not always the case. 

According to the USDA, chickens labeled “free-range” must have had access to the outside (3). 

However, the regulation doesn’t specify how large the outdoor area needs to be or how long the chickens must have access to it. As a result, chickens can be crowded into a small outdoor space for just a few minutes per day and still qualify for the free-range label. 

There’s also no requirement for the type of outdoor space. This means that instead of grass to graze on, the chickens may only have access to a small square of dirt or gravel. 

Furthermore, according to a report done by the Animal Welfare Institute, the USDA doesn’t conduct audits on facilities to check for an outdoor space. In fact, the report found that very little evidence is required to support outdoor access claims (2, 4). 

However, this doesn’t mean that all free-range chicken is a scam. In fact, many farmers do give their chickens ample access to grassy, outdoor areas. 

So, when buying free-range chicken, it’s important to research where the chicken is from to confirm the type and amount of outdoor access provided.

Summary

According to the USDA, free-range chickens must have access to the outdoors. However, there are currently no regulations specifying the quality of the outdoor space or how long chickens should have access to it each day.

Other chicken options 

In addition to free-range, other labels can be added to chicken products to inform the consumer of how the chicken was raised: 

  • Certified Humane Free Range. This label requires at least 2 square feet (about 0.2 square meters) of outdoor space per bird with vegetation for grazing. Chickens must be outdoors for at least 6 hours per day, weather permitting (5, 6).
  • Certified Humane Pasture-Raised. Each chicken must have at least 108 square feet (10 square meters) of land to roam and graze on. Most of the time is spent outdoors, but a shelter must be available for the hens to sleep in (5). 
  • Organic. In addition to year-round outdoor access, an exercise areas, and a shelter to sleep in, hens cannot be treated with antibiotics and must be fed organic feed (7). 

While sometimes more expensive, if you’re concerned about how the chicken you want to buy was raised, you may want to choose a product with one of these three labels instead. 

Summary

Certified Humane Free Range and Pasture-Raised, as well as organic labels, have stricter regulations for outdoor access. They may be a better choice if you’re concerned about how the chicken you’re buying was raised. 

Conventional vs. free-range chicken

In theory, raising free-range chickens is better for both the chickens and the consumers, compared with conventionally raised chickens. 

Conventionally raised chickens are kept inside, oftentimes in cages without access to the outdoors, and usually fed a grain diet fortified with vitamins and minerals (8, 9). 

One study in 400 chickens found that after 280 days, free-range hens had significantly better scores for walking, feather conditions, beneficial gut bacteria, and meat quality than conventional hens (9). 

Another study found that meat from free-range chickens was significantly lower in fat and higher in protein, iron, and zinc, compared with meat from conventional birds (10). 

However, it’s important to note that in both studies the free-range group had unlimited access to the outdoors. Moreover, in the second study, the outdoor area had grass for the hens to graze on.

That means that because the USDA doesn’t regulate the type or amount of outdoor access required, these nutritional benefits may not apply to all chicken products labeled as free-range. 

Summary

Unlimited outdoor access has been shown to improve the welfare and nutritional content of chickens, but as the USDA currently doesn’t regulate the type of outdoor access required, these benefits likely don’t apply to all free-range chicken.

Where to buy free-range chicken 

To avoid misleading free-range labels, your best bet is to purchase free-range chicken directly from a local or regional farmer, either at the farm itself or at a farmer’s market. 

You may also be able to find local free-range chicken at a local butcher shop. 

Another place to look for Certified Humane Free Range chicken is at natural stores like Sprouts Farmers Market or Whole Foods. Depending on where you live, your local grocery store may also carry them. 

Summary

Your best bet for finding free-range chicken is at your local farmers market, a butcher shop, or a specialty grocery store like Whole Foods or Sprouts. Depending on your area, you may also find it at larger grocery stores.

The bottom line

Despite what you may envision, the free-range label on chicken products can be misleading as there are currently no regulations for what “outdoor access” must include. 

Still, some farmers do provide their chickens with meaningful access to a grassy outdoor area. In these cases, not only are the chickens likely healthier, but their meat may also be lower in fat and higher in nutrients like protein and zinc

If you’re concerned about how the chicken was raised, it’s best to either buy free-range chicken from a local farm or look for products with a Certified Humane Free Range seal.

Alternatively, if you can afford to spend a little more, opt for organic or certified pasture-raised chicken instead.