Free range meats are cuts of meat from animals that are allowed unlimited access to pastures, rather than being kept in close and some say, inhumane, small pens. This includes meat from cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. In the past, particularly poultry were subject to living in very tightly enclosed spaces. Now, free range chicken comes from animals that are allowed a much greater space to roam, although they still may be in large enclosed hen or chicken houses.
Meats cannot be called free range unless animal breeders follow guidelines set forth by the government in which they are being sold. For example, the US Department of Agriculture controls these guidelines in the US. Sometimes, others criticize these rules as still being considered cruel.
The free range meat laws for chickens, for example, merely states that chickens must be allowed to go outside. Laws for eggs from chickens considered free range are non-existent, however. Some grocery stores have come under fire from animal rights activists when it was discovered that their free range eggs were laid by chickens that were kept in pens slightly larger than those that housed non-free range chickens, but their movement was still restricted.
Animal rights activists quickly sent word to others to boycott eggs from these stores. The stores have attempted to negotiate contracts with farmers who would provide eggs from chickens that are allowed more space. This type of problem could be avoided in the future with more clearly defined laws from the Department of Agriculture.
The specific guidelines from the Department of Agriculture for other animals are more clear-cut. Cattle and sheep must be given continuous access to a pasture, and can never be locked in a feedlot. Pigs cannot be confined in a feedlot for more than 20% of their lives. When farmers meet these conditions, they can market the meat derived from these animals as free range.
Some shoppers have concerns about purchasing free range meats because they may be more subject to diseases. In the recent upsurge of bird flu cases, some people are very concerned about free range chicken or other poultry. The inability to confine the animals in order to satisfy the law is a current concern. Advocates of free range meats feel that the benefit to the animals far outweighs the risk of them contracting diseases.