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Veganism: What's Wrong with Free-Range?

Updated on November 15, 2014

"Free-Range" Is Misleading

The entire discussion about free-range animal products distracts consumers from the critical fact that animal suffering and death are an inherent part of "factory farming."

Because of minimal provisions and oversight, animals living on free-range or cage-free farms in the United States - whether for meat, dairy, or egg production - are subject to atrocious living conditions. The free-range label does not accurately describe what living conditions are like for the animals.

Once they reach a marketable weight or decline in their milk or egg production, the animals are brutally transported for inhumane slaughter, exactly the same as their non-free-range counterparts.

"Free-range" does not alter the basic system of factory farming; it simply gives the industry a friendly-sounding term that masks its inhumane treatment of animals.


The Lives of Animals Raised for Meat

Painful Conditions Whether Free-range or Caged

Chickens, turkeys, and pigs raised for meat have been genetically selected to convert food into meat at an astounding rate. This has resulted in numerous health issues for the animals, including having bones and ligaments too weak to fully support their weight, and heart and lung problems.

They are in constant pain, and broken bones are fairly common among the animals. Living on a free-range farm does not alter their biological reality of being on the brink of structural collapse.


Free-range Dairy Cows

A dairy cow, whether free-range or not, is impregnated every year in order to stimulate milk production. Her calf is taken away from her shortly after it is born, an injustice that is extremely distressing to any mammal mother and baby.

Male calves born to dairy cows are killed and sold as veal or low-grade beef when they are between a few weeks and four months old, whether they are born on a free-range farm or not. The males, after all, do not produce milk and have not been bred to produce the quantity of meat of beef cattle, so they are seen as essentially useless by-products of the dairy industry - something that does not change just because a farm is "free-range."

The fact that veal calves are born as a direct result of the dairy industry leads to the saying, "Every glass of milk and slice of cheese comes with an invisible serving of veal."

The traditional veal calf crates would not qualify as free-range. Calves born on a free-range dairy farm can be sold to non-free-range farms or raised as "free-range veal," being allowed to graze in the field during their very short lives.


Cage-free Hens

Male chicks of the layer breed of are killed at the hatchery when they are a day or two old, regardless of whether or not the females are being sold to cage-free facilities.

Cage-free hens, like their caged counterparts, are routinely de-beaked without anesthesia and typically have food and water withheld for up to a week or two at a time on occasion in order to force another cycle of egg production.

Labels such as "free-range" and "cage-free" are used primarily as a marketing ploy to make conscientious consumers believe they are purchasing products from farms that treat their animals humanely and kindly, where the animals spend most of their time grazing and enjoying the outdoors. In fact, those labels are only very loosely defined and are hardly regulated, with no third-party verification of conditions on the farms. Living standards for free-range and cage-free animals can be shockingly cruel.

These chickens are technically "free-range" because they are not caged and have some level of access to the outside
These chickens are technically "free-range" because they are not caged and have some level of access to the outside | Source

Free-range Fowl

The guidelines that exist indicate that free-range birds must have access to the outdoors, but there are no specific rules for living conditions. This means that chickens may be crammed into a shed (rather than a cage) without sufficient room to spread their wings.

But if there is a narrow door leading to a small area outside the shed, then this would meet the criterion for having access to the outdoors - even if that area is a patch of dirt polluted with fecal matter from the chickens. Only a few birds out of hundreds, or even thousands, may be able to access the area outside the shed; but because there is an "opportunity" for birds to get out, this arrangement would qualify as "free-range."

I know this kind of information is very upsetting and can be depressing.

But there is a silver lining!

We all have the ability to make a choice to reduce or eliminate animal products on our plates.

Every single cruelty-free meal we eat has a positive impact on the lives of animals, the earth's environment, and our own personal health!

Information about Vegan Living

Diet for a New America: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Happiness and the Future of Life on Earth Second Edition
Diet for a New America: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Happiness and the Future of Life on Earth Second Edition

This is the book I read when I became vegan. This is intelligent, inspiring, and compassionately written.


Free-range Guidelines for Animals Raised for Meat

Free-range cows, pigs, and sheep must eat grass and have some access to the outdoors. However, no specific requirements are in place regarding the size of the range, herd density, or other treatment. The farms, which of course seek to maximize their profits, are basically left to police themselves, and consumers are left to trust a meaningless label on a package of meat.

"Free-range" and "cage-free" describe, to a small extent, the environment of the farm on which the animals are raised. But the guidelines do not provide any protections against common farming practices such as castration, de-horning, branding, and de-beaking without anesthesia or painkillers. Laws prohibiting animal cruelty exempt farm animals, so actions that would be illegal (not to mention morally reprehensible) if done to a cat or dog are sanctioned when perpetrated against farm animals.

"Free-range" and "cage-free" do not mean that animals are treated with any kindness when it comes to transporting them to the slaughterhouse and killing them. As with all other factory farmed animals, they are handled very violently in transport and are brutally killed (frequently while fully awake and capable of feeling pain) in conditions very few of us could stomach.

The Bottom Line

Many consumers would like to take comfort in buying free-range meat, dairy, and eggs. However, the lack of protections afforded to farm animals in free-range or cage-free facilities, along with the animals’ cruel slaughter after life on the farm, means that consumers are easily misled about the living conditions of these animals. While free-range farm animals may have incrementally improved living conditions over their counterparts on “standard” factory farms, their suffering is much too great to ignore or accept. Conscientious consumers should not allow themselves to be placated by a label that is essentially meaningless.

I Welcome Your Comments!

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    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @My Bell -- Thanks for your comments! Yes, the consumer dollar is the best way to express what is truly important to us. It can be challenging to mindfully purchase or not purchase products based on ethics, but I think it makes a difference!

    • My Bell profile image

      Marcelle Bell 

      4 years ago

      I am not vegan but I choose not to eat meat and also do not drink milk, eat products with gelatin and try to minimize all other animal products. I think it's a path for me to get there. I appreciate and support much of what you say in this hub. Ideally, as consumers, we would abstain from eating all meat in order to drive this cruel industry out of business but I know that is not realistic. My hope is that people by large would move to a more plant-based diet, eat much less meat, and when eating meat, do not purchase anything that you know for sure is "factory farmed". Economics will save more animals and allow for more humane treatment. Thanks for writing this hub.

    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @Ravissante: Ah, the irony! Those ads are automatically generated. They must be placed based on keywords, so that if the advertising program sees words like cows, farms, and chickens in the lens it mistakenly assumes that readers are folks who are interested in whatever it is they're selling. As it turns out, that is exactly the opposite of what we're about!

      If you have any specific questions regarding your interest in vegan living, you are welcome to send me a message.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I love your site which I just thankfully found. Lots of interesting information and provided me with exactly the help I was looking for. Now, I'm trying to understand why there are so many anti-vegan advertisements on this page? I saw one for cattle chutes, sheep sales and Canadian Dairy producers. I'm sincerely confused and would like help to understand

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I read your article with interest. I'm not vegan, but try very hard to make informed choices about my families diet and food choices and believe most of the population is hugely under-informed which needs to change.

      My question is this - we have two chickens, which are indeed totally free-range - their available area is around 1000m2 - they're pretty fond of popping into the kitchen looking for cat biscuits too! They provide all the eggs we eat, we never ever buy any. I often discuss this with a vegan friend of mine. Is this still wrong? In a moral sense I am happy with these eggs (which even he can't argue are a very nutritious rich food for my two boys!) but he still maintains it is wrong.

      Just interested in another perspective, and thank you again for an interesting & thought provoking article

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      @ThreeQuarters2Day: Factory farming is widespread in developed nations. According to the Worldwatch Institute, as of 2006, 74 percent of the world's poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs were produced this way. In the U.S., as of 2000 four companies produced 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 60 percent of pigs, and 50 percent of chickens and according to its National Pork Producers Council, 80 million of its 95 million pigs slaughtered each year are reared in industrial settings.

    • ThreeQuarters2Day profile image

      Dawn Romine 

      5 years ago from Nebraska

      Although I can respect your decision not all of what you say is true. The majority of the beef in the US does not come from factory farms, and the term factory farm is misleading in itself. I have lived in the Midwest (Nebraska & Oklahoma)all of my adult life. Cows give birth outside, in the fields, in plenty of space. I have known cowboys, ranchers and farmers to stay up 20 hrs a day to tend and watch the cows to make sure the calves are born healthy.

      These calves live and graze on acres of land for the majority of their life, over a year, it is only the last couple of months they are placed in feedlots to be fed a concentrated nutritionally balanced diet. The biggest reason for large gains per day is low stress. Stressed animals do not gain weight, stressed animals get sick, sick animals cost farmers and ranchers money. It is in their best interest to keep them healthy.

      Likewise the same thing when they do go to market to be processed into food to feed millions of people. There is a chemical reaction in stressed cattle that actually turns meat an off color. The days of cattle prods in trucks are over, have been for a while. The livestock industry has adopted the practices of Temple Grandin, everything from placement of straw in trucks to placement of mirrors and where handlers stand when loading and unloading.

      There are bad apples in every population, including humans, there are parents who should not have kids, there are bad police officers, and there are bad livestock producers. But the whole of the industry does care about the health and well being of the animals in their charge.

    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @lawrence01: It's important for us to know the facts about our food so that we can make our own, individual decisions about what make sense for us and our families. Without knowledge, our choices are meaningless. Thanks for your comments.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      5 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Sadly where the United States goes the rest of the world soon follows. Thank you for the points you mention in the lens. I don't think that I'll ever be a vegan but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't care for the animals that are our food. We should

    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @Sir Daniel UK: Thank you. I am touched by your compliment.

    • Sir Daniel UK profile image

      Danny Gibson 

      5 years ago from Northampton

      There is doubtful no more deserving lens of that 'Purple Star' than this!

      You have made me consider what I eat. That is the best compliment I can pay a writer!

      Well done.

    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @SteelersFan1: The reality that most people cannot access and afford animal products from truly free-range family farms (not all family farms are free-range) means that the vast majority of animal products consumed in the United States are saturated in cruelty.

      And you're right -- this system is not purely accidental. Agribusiness interests have lobbied hard to gain political and economic advantages, forcing many family farms out of business and leaving consumers stuck with little opportunity to make informed, compassionate, healthy choices when shopping for food.

      While most people are extremely uncomfortable with the reality of animal cruelty inherent on factory farms, it can be overwhelming to commit to a vegan lifestyle. My hope is that people will be inspired to do what they can to minimize the suffering of animals. This may mean only one vegan meal per week for some; others may enjoy cruelty-free meals on a regular basis; still others will go 100% vegan. I'm delighted that you have found the inspiration to become vegan once more!

      And it's true that I try not to get too graphic in describing the horrors of life for animals on the farm because it's so upsetting to me. I figure if anyone wants the gory details, they can watch Meet Your Meat or check out PeTA's website!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Just to let you know I am biased, I'm the father of vegival's boys and I have been and recently returned to eating vegan. She makes excellent points, but one thing was not said. That is how the male chicks are killed. They are tossed in a grinder while still alive. No compassion. I grew up in a farming community and am well aware that small family farms are usually as compassionate as they can be, but family farms have been disappearing since the 80's because of a political decision designed to be in favor of factory farms. I don't know about dairy products, but in the US 98% of all meat (beef, chicken and others) come from factory farms.

    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @suepogson: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I think that small "family" farms are an excellent alternative for those who choose to eat meat and dairy products in the most humane way possible. You have highlighted some of these differences very well. You can't avoid the reality of the animals having a "really bad last day" on a small-scale farm, but at least when animals are raised by people who know their names and respect their nature, the dynamic is vastly different from life at a factory farm. The issues I raise involve the cruelty inherent to large-scale factory farming in which animals are no longer treated as living beings but as "food products."

    • suepogson profile image


      5 years ago

      I think you're making really important points here and that this information should be more widely available. Hoever, there IS the other side of the coin - small though it might be. Not all 'free-range' farmers use the term as a selling point. I breed chickens for meat (sorry - perhaps I shouldn't mention that here) and whilst the lives of the birds are not long they are pretty good. They live in warm stables with free access to a big outside run (no small door) , they are not cramped at all and have greenery to play in. They are not pumped with hormones or any other chemicals. They are not force-fed and they are not pumped up with water or given drugs to stop them urinating (both of which artificially plump up the body). They taste delicious (sorry again!) I also have hens for eggs. they are completely free range and finding the eggs is a little like and Easter challenge at times. If a hen gets broody her eggs are untouched. I hope I'm doing something to make the lives of a few food animals easier.

      I eat very little meat but can't imagine ever going vegan - and I admire you! Thanks for a great article

    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @ecogranny: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. These are difficult issues with far-reaching implications. I'm really looking forward to checking out your special contributor selections!

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 

      5 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for your courage and will to share this information. While I am not vegan, and don't know if ever I will be, I do make an effort to get to know the farmers who produce my eggs, butter, milk and cream.

      I pay a lot more for dairy products from farmers with small truly grass-fed operations, more like we see in Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm. When I was a little girl, I lived on a farm that raised its animals in a similar fashion, as did many of the farmers in our region at the time. We knew all our cows, the bull, our hens and rooster, and our goats by name.

      I realize that for most people, finding such farms is difficult and that there are not enough to come close to meeting demand. Because of this realization, I am trying to build more vegan meals and dishes into our diet. So far, I must admit, we haven't enjoyed many of them, but I will keep trying recipes that appeal.

      I encourage you to add your vegan recipes and book reviews that focus on whole foods to the plexo on my page titled, "I'm the Whole Grains & Whole Foods Contributor on Squidoo." The more we share such recipes and resources, the more likely some of us can begin to imagine embracing a vegan lifestyle.

    • Pipa-bipa profile image


      5 years ago

      This is horrible beyond description. Cruel world. I stopped eating meat many years ago, not for ideological reasons but because it doesn't fit my lifestyle. But after reading this I'm glad I've made my choice. Thanks for bringing it up.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thank you for publishing this lens on such an important topic.

    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @TerriCarr: Thanks! I think that the prospect of becoming totally vegan is overwhelming for some people. That's why I stress that people can make a difference any time they choose a cruelty-free meal.

    • TerriCarr profile image


      5 years ago

      Nice lens, Vegival. I admit I find it hard to make it all the way to being vegan. However, although there are many inhumane farms, there are a growing number of humane ones. You simply cannot trust the labels. You would have to personally visit one or know someone who has had a chance to get an honest, inside perspective. Maybe a future project for me.....or you :-)

    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @TransplantedSoul: Being vegetarian is a strong stance against cruelty to animals! Thank you!

    • TransplantedSoul profile image


      6 years ago

      Being vegetarian - the treatment of animals was a major factor. Veganism is even better - but that is a target for another time.

    • Valerie Bloom profile imageAUTHOR

      Valerie Bloom 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @YogaAngel: Agreed, 100%!

    • YogaAngel profile image


      7 years ago

      Even if some people aren't that concerned about animal welfare, it is still pretty disgusting that we eat such contaminated food, laced with antibiotics, and chemicals, and resistant strains of bacteria!!


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