Free Range Chicken and Farm Raised Fish

Do free range chickens and farm raised fish truly have the pros and cons that popular culture believes?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Consumer Ripoffs, Environment, Fads

Skeptoid #47
May 26, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Today we're going to sit down for a meal and compare free range chicken to regular chicken, and farm raised fish to regular fish caught from the ocean. Is either morally better? Is either healthier? The truth may surprise you. Few people have actually looked into the facts personally.

Let's look at the legal definition of "free range" as far as chickens are concerned. According to the US Department of Agriculture, free range chickens are simply those which have access to the outdoors. There is no clear definition of outdoors, however. Free range chickens are still fenced in and typically have a roof over their head as well, but conditions are as varied as there are numbers of farms. No doubt there are some smaller producers who raise chickens in the way that animal activists imagine free range chickens living, with wide open spaces and happiness and joy, but they are in the minority, since that's such an inefficient use of space. The vast majority of chickens sold as free range are simply given some access to outdoor space in approximately the same proportion that their higher market price justifies any reduced farming efficiency. Often it means little more than a window, and that's perfectly legal. Note that free range chickens have nothing to do with organic standards. Free range chickens can be organic or non-organic. That all depends on the food they're given and whether or not they receive antibacterial treatment, plus a few other details.

Proponents of free range chickens have been known to criticize buyers of regular chickens for the immorality of raising chickens in pens. I encourage those people to actually look into the facts of what free range means. It does not mean what most people think it does.

There are two main issues that free range chicken proponents wish to address: The well being of the chickens, and the healthfulness of their meat.

Let's talk about the well-being of the chickens. Does the freedom to walk or look outdoors give them a happier life? We raised chickens when I was a kid, and one thing we always thought was fun was to catch a chicken, lay his head on the ground, then put your finger at his nose and draw a line in the dirt away from him. We called this hypnotizing the chickens. Once you got the hang of it, you could let go of the chicken, and he'd lay there frozen for minutes, sometimes even longer. A lesson that I learned thoroughly was that chickens are not the most intelligent animals on the planet. Sometimes they'd be in the shed, sometimes they'd be out of the shed, always they'd be walking around clucking and pecking at stuff on the ground trying to eat. That's really all they did. I personally spent enough time around chickens to feel assured that a chicken's life is no richer when he's outdoors than when he's indoors. My personal assessment of free range chicken proponents is that they either did not spend as much time around chickens as I did, and believe them to be somehow enriched by that great outdoors feeling; or that they have some other experience outside of my own that I'm sure we'd all love to hear about in the feedback form on or in the forums or on the Skeptalk email discussion list.

And so on to the second point: Is the meat of free range chickens healthier to eat? Remember, we're talking about free range chickens, not organic chickens, so this has nothing to do with what the chickens eat or what other treatment they receive. Some say that free range chickens get better exercise, so their meat is leaner, but this is simply untrue in most cases. Chickens sold as free range rarely have more space than regular chickens, the only difference is that some of that space is outdoors. This question really comes down to Salmonella. Some proponents say that the outdoor environment is free of the concentrated filth found indoors, and thus there is less bacteria; opponents say that the indoor pens are frequently sterilized for just this reason and are thus far cleaner than unsterilized outdoor chicken pens. There are probably cases where each of these is true to some degree. According to the research published on PubMed — the online medical research database published by the National Institutes of Health — there is no significant difference in the number of Salmonella found in conventional, free range, or organic chickens. You are just as likely to have Salmonella in your chicken no matter which you buy. So cook your chicken all the way through no matter what.

In the United States, free range chicken eggs are not regulated; they do not need to come from free range chickens, it's an unregulated marketing label only. There are no requirements which must be met by producers who sell eggs as free range, and so paying these higher prices is just throwing money away. Know what you're paying for. Do your own research.

Personally, I find myself without any reason to pay the higher prices for chicken marketed as free range. I doubt that the living conditions are actually significantly better, I doubt that chickens have the capacity to appreciate any difference there might be, and I am satisfied that free range chicken contains no less Salmonella. If you find some reason to disagree with my conclusions, please come onto the web site and tell us about it.

What about hatchery raised fish, also known as aquaculture? This is a more complicated issue, because fish are difficult and expensive to get out of the ocean, and there are certainly cases where overfishing threatens wild populations. In this sense, fish farms make all the sense in the world: the native populations are not affected, and the fish can be harvested far more cheaply, efficiently, and safely.

This is a different question from the one about raising fish in hatcheries in order to help repopulate depleted stocks, which is a particularly thorny environmental issue. Conceptually it's a good thing to do, but in practice it creates highly complex problems. Releasing large numbers of fish into an area with multiple threatened species will help the released species, but often to the detriment of the other species. That's not to say it shouldn't be done, it just has to be done with great care by knowledgeable experts.

Fish farming is considered a good thing by such a large consensus that you have to dig pretty deep to find criticism of it: You have to dig all the way down to our favorite anti-human fire-bombing eco-terrorists at PETA, just the people you want in charge of your unbiased science information. They've made a web site called where they refer to the water in fish farms as "fecal stew" and actually presume to authoritatively discuss the psychological damage suffered by hatchery fish. They describe fish as "intelligent and interesting individuals". They also argue, strangely, that eating fish is toxic. That's news to me; I eat as much fish as anyone and I appear to be alive. Everyone is well within their rights to believe PETA's charges. If you do, you're probably not going to eat fish from any source, and so the question of whether it's better to eat farm-raised fish or free-swimming fish is not at issue.

And even back on Earth, when you're raising fish to eat, fish farming is not all upside. There are still problems. Since the populations are smaller, they are subject to inbreeding depression, so it's necessary to continuously introduce new genes into the environment. It can't be a totally closed system, but this very small draw on the wild population is far, far better than a direct draw on the wild population for all harvesting.

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With a landlocked fish farm, growers have direct control over the water quality and content. No doubt there are fish farms where the water quality is deleterious to the fish, but since this hurts the farmers more than anyone else, they're in the minority. There are also bodies of natural water containing pollutants that fish in farms are not exposed to, which is to the farmers' advantage. Italy is really big on aquaculture, and those interested in the subject are encouraged to read up on their tests, which are numerous. Generally they find safe levels of many pathogens in both land-based and offshore fish farms, but no Salmonella in either. PCB's are found in slightly higher concentrations in the offshore fish farms, but still at safe levels. Again, you can find this information online at PubMed, which is a great bookmark for anyone interested in health sciences. Just don't tell anyone at PETA; we wouldn't want to pollute their minds with any of this immoral "research".

Overfishing in the oceans is a real challenge, but the severity of the problem and how recoverable it is depends entirely upon who you ask. I'm not even going to go there, that's another subject for another time. The bottom line is that fish farms are generally a good thing: They protect wild populations while still providing the fish we need. As for those free range chickens? If you're really concerned about the welfare of the chickens, don't eat them. There is little reason to conclude that chickens sold as free range under our current USDA standards live more fulfilling lives than their indoor counterparts. If you think they should, then you should probably direct your efforts toward changing the regulatory system, rather than criticizing people who eat regular chicken.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Aquaculture Certification Council. "" Aquaculture Certification Council, 30 Jan. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. <>

Bailey, Joseph, Cosby, Douglas. "Salmonella Prevalence in Free-Range and Certified Organic Chickens." Journal of Food Protection. 1 Nov. 2005, Volume 68, Number 11: 2451-2453.

Bowden, J. The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth: The Surprising, Unbiased Truth About What You Should Eat and Why. Minneapolis: Fair Winds, 2007. 189-190.

Jahan, Kishowar, Paterson, Alistair, Piggott, John R. "Sensory quality in retailed organic, free range, and corn-fed chicken breast." Food Research International. 1 Jun. 2005, Volume 38, Issue 5: 495-503.

PETA. "Fish Farms." PETA, 12 Jul. 1999. Web. 9 Nov. 2009. <>

USDA. "Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms." Food Safety and Inspection Service. USDA, 24 Aug. 2006. Web. 18 Oct. 2009. <>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Free Range Chicken and Farm Raised Fish." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 26 May 2007. Web. 4 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 116 comments

I have been shocked by just how low the standards for animal welfare can be in the US. It seems to be a state-by-state basis, not federal rules, and some states are much worse than others. My family in the US only buys organic chicken where the standards ARE more rigorous (there's a named authority with a reputation laying them down and you can easily look them up). They just eat more veggies with it being more pricey. A chicken doesn't need to be very smart to appreciate being able to move, stretch its wings, have something to peck, and not stand hock deep in its own cack. Look at the hocks/heels of the next chicken you buy: if you can't because they've been trimmed off, suspect that there were sores on them. If the legs are nice and long and clean, much better chance your chicken at least lived in a clean barn. The standards are much tighter in Europe.
Fish farms ... the salmon ones in sea bays have issues. Because the salmon don't ever get into freshwater they never lose the sea lice (ever see those? disgusting, even if harmless.) Slinging pesticides in the water works, but the long-term tests of farmers being done in the UK (under the auspices of the Dept. for Agriculture I think, not sure) show there are some neurological problems for workers and the environment, even at low exposure. Not world-destroying problems, but mildly disabling ones not to be complacent about.

Candida, UK
January 29, 2013 12:36pm

This really is nothing to do with other comments. Sorry. Please ignore if really nothing to do with the subject under discussion.

We live a lot of the time in Brittany (north-west France).
There are people who have well-stocked lakes, with fish. Other people pay well in order to catch the largest fish in the lake.
There is one particularly large carp which has been caught several times (or many, because I saw this on television some time ago.) The things that worry me most are,
1) Do fish feel pain? and
2) If so, how long can a fish live, when trying to eat, when it is expecting eating food to be painful.

J Howell, Florida (vacation)
January 29, 2013 6:04pm

As a vegan, I do not support free-range or any types of chicken farming, but am glad you raised the point. The think the analogy is flawed between your personal experience and cutting off chicks beaks as they go around attached to machines then packed into crates and live a miserable life inside a cage too small for even one chicken with five others.
As I said, I'm glad you raised the point about so-called free-range chickens.

Joel, Greensboro, NC
January 29, 2013 6:11pm

When I was a kid our "free range" were just that, free range. Which meet they had to take care of them selves. They ate grain dropped by the pigs and cattle and were eaten sometimes by hawks, foxes and of course us. We were happy to not have the direct expense of feeding them. Oh they alsso took care of repopulating themselves.

Tim, Roann, IN
January 31, 2013 4:57am

About the fish and fish farms part.
Fish farming has been very hard on native salmon stocks. Not only is there a problem with the waste produced but there are problems with diseases being introduced to the water. Fish farms also dramatically increase the numbers of fish lice in the area of the fish farm. Since fish farms are usually located where the native salmon run the diseases directly affect the native salmon.
Fish farms tend to leak their fish too, so your fish farms on the west coast are introducing Atlantic salmon to the Pacific Ocean. It gets a bit worse because the cultured salmon are often hybridized or genetically modified to have faster growth rates and when they escape they can breed with native stocks introducing those modifications into the wild stocks.
About the waste. The big problem is the concentration of it. Most ecological systems can deal with low levels of waste, but fish farms are dumping huge amounts of untreated waste into the water, just because they have huge numbers of fish concentrated in a small area. It is like the difference between 1 cow pooping on an acre of pasture and a feedlot where 1,000 cows are pooping inside a pen. Only in the water it is more like a city dumping untreated sewage into a lake. It creates a dead zone.

Dryland fish tanks with closed water systems might be more environmentally sound but they also require much more energy to run which pushes the cost of the fish up too high to compete with open water fish farms.

dan hunter, Ontario
January 31, 2013 7:33am

Dan, you are absolutely right that aquaculture presents a lot of problems at present. Yours are the least of the problems presented world wide.

But, aquaculture is rapidly improving to the point that the gains of the future will far outweigh the current anacceptable general practice.

One needs to read the research on the matter rather than the blog casting.

There are a number of disagreeable outcomes of the majority of aquaulture practices as they are based on ancient mthodologies.

There are a number of aquaculture practices that are unacceptable because they still require wild fish input.

There are a number of aquaculture practices that are confined with waste disposal due to lack of resources.

But, with a restocking, waste recycling (into secondary-tert etc) based system using local and derived mixture of aquaculture, the "tyro" (ie research) end of aquaculture is now being disseminated into scale.

Is aquaculture unsustainable? Five years ago I would have blogged, posted commented as saying ; definitely.

Lately? With waste resource recycling into aquaculture nd where its appropriate, I would support it.

This is not to say I think harvesting top end pedators in aquaculture is a smart thing. I wold say hat ancient techniques have had a bearing on field food fish as carp and milk fish have definitely shown us the best and worst.

Who knows.. that monstrous facility growing animal protein from sewage and sun light isnt that far..

That is aquaculture...

Mud, Sin City, Oz
February 14, 2013 3:52am

I've only recently discovered Sekptoid, and am enjoying it very much. Fantastic work—usually.

Unfortunately, there's a surprising lack of objectivity and critical thought applied to parts of this article.

For example, "You have to dig all the way down to our favorite anti-human fire-bombing eco-terrorists at PETA..." Strangely, I don't see any citations substantiating these claims (perhaps you're confusing the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front organizations for PETA), so this comes across as an unnecessary (and credibility-reducing) ad hominem attack, which is of course a form of logical fallacy, a target of much criticism on this site.

As a vegan, I have objections to animal agriculture as a whole ("free-range" or otherwise), but that isn't—or at least, shouldn't be—the scope of this article. Unfortunately, it appears that Mr. Dunning may have a few bones to pick (sorry) in this regard, as evidenced in a reply to a comment on the fast food post, where he dismisses well-researched films like Forks Over Knives as "shock docs." Maybe he's seen these films and is making a valid claim. Unfortunately, I'd guess he hasn't.

As Mr. Dunning notes in his Tibet post, "This is Skeptoid, not Politicaloid, and my purpose is not to advocate one side or the other in political questions where you have two sides that are perfectly valid to different groups of people."

The pro-science content on this site is great. Counterproductive editorializing is not.

Justin, Florida
June 28, 2013 7:03am

Justin from Florida.

I wanted to give you some citations to support the claims that PETA are "anti-human fire-bombing eco-terrorists". Please read the entire articles.

You are right thought that this is an ad hominem attack...but it's a pretty damn good one.

Jesse, New Mexico
September 19, 2013 7:03pm

"You have to dig all the way down to our favorite anti-human fire-bombing eco-terrorists at PETA..." Strangely, I don't see any citations substantiating these claims (perhaps you're confusing the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front organizations for PETA)....."
- Justin, Florida
June 28, 2013 7:03am

All the same to me.

"Please read the entire articles."
- Jesse, New Mexico
September 19, 2013 7:03pm

Good idea.

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
April 13, 2014 5:55pm

The existence of a reflex such as that which allows the "hypnosis" of chickens is no evidence of their overall intelligence or optimal living conditions. Cats, for example, display a similar response when the back of their necks are pinched, yet we don't use that fact to conclude that piling hundreds of cats in a barn is okay. Your opinion of the backyard fowl of your childhood is not very relevant to the issue.

lwarman, Alberta, Canada
March 12, 2015 8:36pm

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