"Free-range chickens" -- are they truly so? I have heard that in most instances, the chickens are granted release from constricted cages for a short time only and still spend their lives in small cages.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Service and Inspection Service compels producers of so-called free-range poultry to demonstrate that the birds in question have "been allowed access to the outside." Natural poultry contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.
And that's it for USDA regulations.
Now, the department also publishes a document called "U.S. Trade Descriptions for Poultry" that outlines voluntary trade standards for chicken and chicken products. The trade descriptions specify six categories of poultry, each one comprising a production method (where the birds live) and a feeding system (what the birds eat).
Traditional birds are raised in temperature-controlled houses; free-range birds are raised in the very same houses but have "access to the outdoors." This phrase has sparked a lot of controversy because, in practice, the access might be nothing more than a distant door through which an unusually ambitious hen might propel herself. A free-range chicken may comport itself just like a traditional one, and you should be wary of spending more for it.
Erica Marcus writes for Newsday. E-mail your queries to email@example.com, or send them to Erica Marcus, Food/Part 2, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Road, Melville, NY 11747-4250.