Free-Range has two definitions in the United States of America, both of which are used by various poultry farmers.
Its premise is that animals should not be kept in pens or cages throughout the duration of their lives, and should be allowed to…well…behave like animals. What this means is that cows should be allowed to graze in pastures and chickens should be allowed walk around unfettered by cages. So first and foremost, it’s a farming philosophy that is advocated by some.
The second definition is a legal one, a “requirement” that must be applied to the chicken. It differs from country to country, but here in the United States it says that if meat has been labeled free range, then it means that “Livestock or poultry has been allowed access to the outside”(You’ll need to scroll down to the appropriate definition).
However (and there’s always a “however”), some poultry producers intepret the above in different ways. Some apply the standard exactly the same way as the philosophy intends.
But as Michael Pollans found out in “The Omnivore’s Dillema” while researching orgnaic chicken, some producers apply the legal definition of “free range” while ignoring the spirit of the law. What this means is that during the chickens life-span, they live in large buildings with doors that the poultry managers hope never are used.
About the “free-range” moniker – no other criteria are covered by this term. The food the birds eat, the size of the range, the number of birds raised together, or the space allowed to each bird are NOT covered by the “free-range”. If a poultry company wishes to apply “free range” to their lable, the must show that their birds have access to the outdoors. That’s it.
Even more interesting is the fact that there is no legal definition of the term “free range” when applied to eggs. What that means is that “free range eggs” may have a philosophical definition, but there is no governing body to which any requirements can be judged. Something to keep in mind when looking at eggs.