Free range chicken

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2010

I didn't realize it back then but my grandfather had true free range chickens. They wandered through his half-acre garden, kept down the insect population — at least the ones that appealed to their tastes -- and laid their eggs wherever they pleased. That was a chicken's world until the arrival of factory farms just a few decades ago.

The 21st-century bird that ends up in the local supermarket or that deposits her eggs onto a faux nest wouldn't know an insect if it landed on her beak. Her diet is the same in every season. Pre-industrial age chickens enjoyed a varied diet that probably didn't include corn but did consist of hundreds of species of bugs and plants.

Today's free range chicken doesn't have it quite so good. By definition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture the term applies to fowl that "have been allowed access to the outside" for a significant part of their life. Pity the shy bird that happens to find herself at the back end of the shed with 2,000 roommates between her and the door. If she does make it out with a minimum of peck-wounds there won't be an insect in sight and the landscape might be plain concrete and perhaps snow in the winter. But the free-range label might justify a higher price at the restaurant or market.

The term free range is a little Orwellian but pastured poultry describes the real thing. Birds are raised on real pasture, sometimes one that has just been vacated by the cows. The birds disperse the cow manure as they feast on fly larvae and parasites; their own droppings contribute to the field's fertility.

Does free range chicken taste better? Enthusiasts claim that it does but blinded taste tests don't always support that view. That should not be any surprise. The meat from grain-fed feedlot cattle is tender and sweeter because the animals don't move around much and have more fat (marbling) that enhances flavor. I have no recollection of what my grandfather's chickens tasted like but they sure didn't sit around much. They chased each other (and me) and I wouldn't expect their meat to be tender. The flavor, of course, depends on what they ate and what appeals to a chicken might not appeal to us. Like venison, what is "gamy" to one person is "rich in flavor" to another.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.