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Confused by Labels? Join the Crowd!

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I recently received an email from an individual who wanted to know what standards had to be met for chicken to be labeled “free-roaming.”   The question got me thinking about how misleading food labels are, particularly when it comes to the animals we consume.

Many people buy animals to eat and their by-products that are labeled as “free-range,” “free-roaming,” and “cage-free,” (usually at premium prices),  because they want to support  “humane” animal welfare practices.  I know I did.  After all, what do you envision when you see an idyllic photo and the words  “cage-free” on an egg carton?  Or a pristine photo of a meadow and “free-roaming” on a package of chicken breasts?   And this is exactly the myth animal agricultural industries want to perpetuate.

Let’s start with “cage-free,” which is one of the most deceptive labels.  In fact, the designation means very little from an animal welfare perspective.  “Cage-free” labels only mean that egg laying hens were not housed in battery cages.  While this may sound humane, consider what the “cage-free” designation does NOT mean.

• “Cage-free” labels do not mean that egg laying hens have freedom of movement.  In fact, the mobility of “cage-free” hens is usually extremely restricted due to overcrowding. Cage-free hens are typically  housed by the thousands in warehouse style buildings with only a 12 square inch space.  See

• “Cage-free” labels do not mean that hens were not debeaked – The overwhelming majority are subjected to this cruel practice.  (For an explanation of debeaking, see United Poultry Concerns)

• “Cage-free” labels do not mean that egg-laying hens have access to any outdoor space.

• “Cage-free” labels do not mean that “housing” conditions are sanitary.

• “Cage-free” labels do not mean that the company who owns the chickens does not engage in cruel culling practices.(1)

• “Cage- free” labels do not mean that a egg-laying hen was not factory farmed.

Labels such as “free-roaming” and “free-range” are also confusing and misleading.   These designations are used for birds we eat, as opposed to egg laying hens or any other animal.  Used in a context other than birds killed for human consumption, the “free-range” designation is meaningless.  However, even in its intended context,  “free-roaming” and “free-range” labels provide absolutely no assurance that a chicken was humanely treated.

“Free-roaming” or “free-range” mean only that some access to an outdoor space was provided.  Again, while this may sound “humane,” the designations are misleading because there are no standards for:

• length of time a bird is actually outside (if ever);

• size and nature of the outdoor space provided;

• maximum number of birds that can be crammed into the outdoor space

So, a factory farmed chicken who lived in a windowless warehouse enclosure with tens of thousands of other birds can be labeled “free-range” or “free-roaming” on the sole basis that some access to an outdoor space was provided.  Other compassionate and humane sounding labels that are totally meaningless to how an animal actually lived are “natural,” pasture-raised” and “enriched.” As noted in my post The Meat You Eat,  almost 99% of the animals we eat today are factory farmed.  We support factory farming pretty much every time we eat animals and their by-products.  This is true even if the package photo, label or “designation” try to convince us otherwise.

Think about it.

Kris Giovanini lives in Colorado and started VegansEatWhat? in 2013.  She can be reached at 


Author: Kris Giovanini

Kris is a former attorney and long time vegetarian/vegan who was healed of severe digestive problems after eliminating all dairy from her diet. Says Kris "if I can make great vegan food, anyone can"! Kris devotes her time to promoting vegan/plant-based diets and can be reached at