When I buy "free-range" chicken breasts from the local co-op, I would like to think that the chickens lived on a farm where they were allowed to forage to their little poultry hearts' content, but sadly, I would be misguided. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says in an information bulletin: "Producers must demonstrate to the agency that poultry has been allowed access to the outside." Hypothetically, the door to the coop could be open for five minutes, and the chicken could still qualify as free-range.
* Jo Rominson's Eat Wild page and list of grain-fed beef producers.
* Thundering Hooves
* Skagit River Ranch
* These Cows Aren't Mad
* Ground-Beef Zero
Also, labels are not necessarily verified. A producer can call its products natural or cage-free, but this is not monitored by any agency. The only term with a strict definition is "organic," whereby the USDA inspects the source of food and certifies that meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are fed no antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal by- products. They must also be produced without using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.
One would think that finding products from cows that were raised in pastures or pigs reared in a traditional muddy sty, or chickens that roamed and pecked in the farmer's yard would be the norm, but it isn't. To find such products, consumers must look for labels that say the animal was "pasture-based"and even these claims aren't verified by the government. Other terms, which mean the same thing, include "pasture-finished," "grass-finished," "100 percent grass-fed," or "all-grass-fed." Animals raised on pasture farms have dramatically different lives than those that aren't: They eat their native diet and they live stress-free, unconfined. In turn, they are healthy and rarely require the use of pharmaceuticals like antibiotics. An excellent resource for finding local farms that rear their animals this way is www.eatwild.com.
Since no label is 100 percent accurate or necessarily truthful, consumers should talk to their butcher or call the farm itself to ask how the animals are reared or slaughtered. For more information about labeling, visit the USDA's Web site at www.usda.gov or the Consumer's Union for Environmental Labels at www.eco-labels.org.