Free Range Chicken and Farm Raised Fish
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 lie 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 Skeptoid.com 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 Skeptoid.com website 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 website called FishingHurts.org 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.
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.
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