Monday, February 1, 2010

"Better than Free Range" Can you believe they actually say that?! Really??

In the world of high ethical and humane treatment of farm animals the plight of commercial poultry is the most difficult to resolve. Farmers want the biggest bird, the cheapest to feed, and the fastest to market weight they can – all a part of good business. However, the way America has satisfied those desires has been well documented in movies like “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh”. It is not a pretty sight.

The local food movement and disdain for genetically engineered produce and animals has led to renewed interest in Heritage breed chickens, ducks, and turkeys. However, alternative hybrid breeds of poultry, slower growing than the commercial white Cornish cross chicken, namely Freedom Rangers and Label Rouge, have gained much interest of late.

Some of the animal welfare labels that audit farms to ensure good care of farm animals from birth to the table have standards that dictate growth rates to ensure that the animal anatomy is not compromised by excessive growth rates. The harsh reality of the spectacular growth rates of commercial chickens has been grossly depicted in recent documentaries and movies, thus, the renewed emphasis on slower growth rate birds.
Whenever a standard is created, business motivations will ensure that the industry will just meet that standard. Economics will rule and poultry farm care has come to resemble a manufacturing operation more than farm raising and nurturing of animals.

The creation of the Label Rouge hybrid was one of the first commercial ventures in Europe to create an alternative to the commercial Cornish cross chicken. However, it still is not a sustainable bird – the genetics are owned by corporations much like Monsanto owns the genetics of modern corn.
The following is from a document of the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service:

“In Europe the slow-growing genetics are mainly supplied by the poultry breeding companies SASSO (3), and Hubbard-ISA. (4) They do not sell the actual broiler chicks, but rather the parents; however, many pastured poultry producers have hatching capability. SASSO's typical Label Rouge cross is T44N male x SA51 female (using a different male—the T44NI—results in white underfeathers in the offspring). A typical Hubbard-ISA cross is S77N male x JA57 female. Broilers from both of these crosses will have red feathers, yellow shanks, thin skin, and a naked neck. Other parents are available for broilers with white feathers and skin, black feathers, barred, non-naked neck, etc. or for faster growth.

At the time of this writing, SASSO and Hubbard-ISA genetics of this type are not available in the U.S. However, a U.S. company called Rainbow Breeding Company (5) is developing similar genetics and offers Free Range (FR) Broiler parents. FR Broiler chicks (day-olds) are also available. Male chicks are regularly available; female chicks are available only sometimes since they are used more in breeding; females grow at 85% the rate of the males.”

We have been surprised and amazed that in a day and time where the public rails against GMO and Monsanto’s dominance of seed production and genetics that the public has not been equally disturbed and vocal about corporate ownership of commercial poultry genetics. That there is not more concern about the birds they eat are unable to naturally mate, or in the case of Label Rouge and Freedom Rangers that a farmer must purchase parents as they can not be breed and raised on the farm. That chicks and “parents” are placed in the US Mail to farms instead of being born on the farm like all our other meat animals.

Sysco and US Food Services provide the vast majority of protein to restaurants in the US. As the local food movement as gained steam, so has their marketing of “new lines” of “natural” meat.
US Food Services advertises that they distribute the natural poultry of Ashley Farms in North Carolina. Let’s look at what Ashley Farms says about their poultry on their own website:
We could not make this stuff up!

First, they claim their poultry is better than free-range. Why, because “they are completely protected, safe from the dangers of the outdoors”. Read it for yourself:

“Better than Free-Range

Some consumers like the idea of "Free-Range" Chickens, assuming they are naturally healthier and better-tasting than chickens that have spent their lives indoors.
The problem is, by allowing a flock outdoors, the grower loses control of what the birds eat and drink, making them vulnerable to any and every disease carried by wild birds overhead and wild animals passing through.

Also, ironically enough, to have a flock classified and sold as "Free-Range chicken" in the United States, a grower need only provide the chicken access to the outdoors. Since most of the white-feathered commercial breeds commonly grown in America actually prefer the indoors, many so-called "Free-Range chickens" spend their entire lives indoors by choice, often in over-crowded conditions. Also, these birds are not bred to withstand many of the perils of growing outside, and actually are healthier and grow better in a protected environment.

At Ashley Farms, our chickens experience the very best of both worlds. They enjoy all the benefits of the great outdoors - fresh air, fresh water and plenty of room to roam free inside their clean, climate-controlled houses. But they are completely protected, safe from the dangers of the outdoors. There is never any risk of exposure to disease, never any stress caused by exposure to the elements, and never any chance the chickens will eat or drink something they should not.

That makes Ashley Farms Chicken far superior to free-range chicken, a difference informed consumers really appreciate.”

In case you still are not convinced, they also state:

“Ashley Farms producer grows its own pullets in its own houses, complete with concrete floors (rather than dirt) under the litter for the cleanest possible conditions.”

After all, who would want their chicken to forage on actual dirt? Yuck! How dirty?!

Danny Williamson, General Manager of Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch says "commercial chickens are too fat and lazy, to go outdoors but true Heritage Chickens thrill in chasing bugs and eating grass and digging in the dirt, this is natural for chickens. After all, the Red Junglefowl, is of historical importance as the likely ancestor of the domesticated chicken, and it still roams free in the jungles of Southeast Asia, where they live outdoors. Yes, after all these generations and centuries, the Red Junglefowl has found a way to survive the “dangers of the outdoors”.

Obviously, the reason their birds are safer in a climate controlled building with a concrete floor is because commercial birds of today have lost their immune system through the genetic manipulation and development. They are a fragile bird devoid of their natural heritage and ability to forage.
Ashley Farms claims their poultry are Heritage Breeds when in fact their poultry are the same hybrid birds with genetic crosses symbolized like serial numbers on an automobile. Heritage Breeds are defined by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy ( No serial numbers or hybrid genetic designations required.

If you want great natural sustainable poultry just follow these simple steps:

1. Ask the farmer where they get their chicks and poults from. Animal Welfare Approved does not allow chicks and poults to be sent in the US Mail – who thinks they should? Chicks, just like lambs, calves, and piglets should be born on the farm.
2. Ask the farmer where the parents are? Sustainable poultry require that you can breed future parents as well as create the livestock that becomes our food source. If you can not see the parents than it is not sustainable.
3. Visit the farm and see the birds forage on pasture and real dirt. Poultry can not forage on concrete and what would be natural about that?

If ever in doubt, search out the Godfather of American Heritage Poultry – Mr. Frank Reese, Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Kansas. He will help any farmer get started in heritage poultry and has been the voice of sustainable slow-growing poultry. Or contact us, the FarmerandChef, will help any farmer or chef embrace truly natural, sustainable, and wholesome poultry.


  1. As Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch Heritage Chef there is much to be said about the affects of genetic engineering “games”. One sad, negative, by-product of these “gamers” that has affected the chef is the lost of true honest flavor. It is fast becoming a historical myth, lost in the obscurity of time and only referenced in historical archived recipes or eluded to by the eternal Julia Childs or Jacques Pépin. Having grown up on a poultry farm in the early 50’s, I do remember, and remember well, the flavors and ubiquitous aroma that they speak so fondly of. Sadly so many chefs and consumers search for this in today’s commercial birds and find themselves attempting to awaken clientele senses, only to miss the mark, ending with great disappointment for all. And we as chef’s are left with the task of creating our best with inferior product. Most do not understand why “The Colonel" has to use 11 secret herbs and spices. Candidly put, there is no “real” chicken flavor there! While this is no mystery to people such as myself the “secret” lies in the sustainable fowl ,who by their very natural way of birth, maturation and living, creates the very thing that culinary artist desire. Uncontrived Flavor, succulent taste and enticing aroma!
    The finished bird as it comes to the table can never be of any higher quality than the quality of the original poultry
    Thanks again for your words
    Steve Pope
    Heritage Chef
    Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch Inc.
    Lindsborg, KS 67456

  2. Thank you Chef Steve for your insightful words. The Farmer and The Chef are honored to have you and the Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, America's premier heritage poultry ranch, following our blog and sharing your decades of experience. We speak for many when we say "Thank You for bringing good food to so many".

    We are not done with this issue. Please check back soon for a series of blog posts about "Sustainable Poultry". We will be looking forward to your comments and insights, Chef.