‘Free range’, ‘bred free range’, ‘organic’ and ‘sow-stall free’ are terms that are applied to animal-based food products, such as meat or eggs. They refer to the way in which animals are farmed and housed. Unfortunately, there are no universally accepted definitions for these terms, but some guidance is provided below.
The RSPCA’s view is that each of these housing systems can be humane, but only if they are well managed and adapted to meet the behavioural and physical needs of the animals. That’s why you need to read the label carefully and find out whether the product has been accredited or approved by a reputable organisation with minimum welfare standards.
Free-range animals are animals that have some access to the outdoors. How much access, how often, and how big the outdoor area is can vary greatly.
Free-range eggs come from hens that should have access to an outdoor area during the day. At night, large flocks of free-range hens are kept in sheds or barns to keep them safe from predators, while smaller flocks may be kept in moveable sheds to allow rotational use of the range area. Conditions on free-range farms vary greatly. On some farms, the range area is large, the hens have access to shade and shelter, and all hens are able to come and go from the range during the day; on others the range area is small, bare and difficult for hens to get to.
The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme requires that eggs marketed as RSPCA ‘free range’ or ‘barn laid’ come from layer hens that have more space than those raised in conventional systems. They can perch, dustbathe, scratch and forage, and lay their eggs in a nest. RSPCA ‘free range’ eggs come from hens that have ready access to an attractive range area during the day that provides them with shade, shelter and protection from predators.
Free-range pork comes from pigs that were born and raised with free access to the outdoors. That is, where the sows and growing piglets have access to paddocks, as well as huts or other forms of housing for shelter, and are not confined to sow stalls (for pregnant sows) or farrowing crates (for lactating sows and their piglets).
The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme requires that pigs live in a well-managed outdoor system, or within enhanced indoor environments that cater for all their behavioural and physiological needs, or a combination of both (referred to as ‘bred free range’). You would not see sow stalls or farrowing crates on an RSPCA Approved pig farm. All pigs are reared, handled and transported with consideration and care and then slaughtered humanely.
Bred free-range pork
‘Bred free range’ is a term used to apply to pig products (pork, bacon, etc) from pigs that were born in a free-range environment but were subsequently raised indoors. These pigs may be raised in large open sheds with straw bedding (known as ecoshelters) or in small pens on concrete floors as in conventional pig farming systems.
The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme requires that pork marketed as RSPCA ‘bred free-range’ comes from farms where sows and boars range freely outside, piglets are born outside on the range and, once weaned, are raised in ecoshelters with straw bedding.
Sow-stall free pork
The Australian pig industry has committed to phasing out sow stalls and moving all female breeding pigs (sows) to indoor group housing, an initiative strongly supported by the RSPCA. The term ‘sow-stall free’ is used to differentiate pork product from pigs that have been born to sows in group housing. The pig industry defines ‘sow-stall free’ as a system where a sow may have been kept in a stall for up to 5 days following last mating up to one week before farrowing; however, other definitions allow only one day in a stall. These stalls are called ‘mating stalls’, are very similar to a sow stall, and are used at mating to prevent aggression between sows and hence potential injury or abortion. Following this period of confinement, the sow is housed in groups with other pregnant sows.
The move from sow stalls to group housing is a very important first step. The next priority is transitioning away from farrowing crates which may be used to confine the sow for up to five weeks (from about a week before giving birth to her piglets up until they are weaned). Farrowing pens which allow the sow freedom of movement while protecting the piglets from crushing are under development. Piglets from sow-stall free sows may be raised in large open sheds with straw bedding (known as ecoshelters) or in small pens on concrete floors as in conventional pig farming systems.
Free-range chicken or turkey meat
Free-range chicken or turkey meat come from chickens and turkeys that have access to an outdoor area during the day. At night, free-range chickens are kept in sheds or barns. Turkeys may have continuous access to the outdoors. Conditions on free-range farms vary greatly. On some farms, the range area is large, provides grass for foraging, has access to shade and shelter, and all birds are able to come and go from the range during the day; on others, the range area may be less attractive for the birds.
The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme requires that RSPCA chicken and turkey comes from farms that ensure good welfare for birds by focussing on the housing conditions that affect bird welfare and also by providing birds with straw bales to peck and perch on, a longer dark period so they can rest properly, and sufficient space to move freely within a shed. RSPCA ‘free range’ chicken and turkey comes from birds that have ready access to an attractive range area during the day that provides them with shade, shelter and protection from predators.
Are lamb and beef free-range?
Most sheep and beef products in Australia come from animals that were born and raised in extensive (outdoor) environments, so they can also be termed free-range. However, some cattle and sheep may have been held in feedlots in the last stage of their production to increase their growth rate prior to slaughter and to help ensure consistency in meat quality. A feedlot is a confined area where animals are fed daily rations of (mainly) grain to reach a certain target weight. By some definitions, ‘free range’ would exclude products from animals that had been held in feedlots.
Organic agriculture has a focus on avoiding the use of synthetic chemicals, including synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, hormones and antibiotics. In animal production, organic farming also aims to provide a natural environment for animals and foster natural behaviours. Organic meat production usually includes access to the outdoors (free-range), but the exact standards of this can vary.
Organic foods for export must meet certain standards set by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. A number of organisations are accredited to certify organic produce for export and domestic use against these standards, and foods that are labelled as ‘certified organic’ have been certified in this way and meet the standards.