What’s wrong with free-range meat, dairy and eggs?

| 1 March 2023
minute reading time

In a nutshell…

“Free-range” is a term used by the meat, dairy, fish and egg industries to convince the public that their products are ethical.

  • In fact, ‘free range is often poorly defined, poorly enforced and is a set of standards not much better than the minimum welfare requirements for these animals.
  • Free range animals still live in captivity with their lives cut brutally short in slaughterhouses as soon as they reach the right weight – often only at a few months of age.
  • We can all simply choose plant-based options instead and let animals live properly wild and free!

Clever marketing ploys run by the meat, dairy and egg industries tell us that their animals are ‘free-range’ and they follow this up by showing us luscious pictures of cows running through fields and chickens living lives of freedom and plenty.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.


Free range: What does it mean?

Free-range welfare standards in the UK are hardly any different from the minimum welfare standards that apply to intensively farmed animals. By buying free range, we are falling prey to a marketing ploy designed to keep us buying animal products when, in reality, plant-based is the only way to be cruelty-free.

Take chickens, for example. You would be forgiven for thinking that free range chickens are allowed to roam free, as the name implies.

However, the reality paints a very different picture. A free-range chicken in the UK must satisfy each of these three conditions:

  • There should be no more than 13 birds per square meter
  • The chicken should be eight weeks old by the time they are slaughtered
  • For at least half of the chicken’s short life, they should have daytime access to an open-air run through ‘popholes’ in the side of the barn

To put that into perspective, that means that a single chicken can live with around 5,000 other chickens in a 20-meter by 20-meter barn for four weeks, totally enclosed, before having access to a meagre bit of outside space – shared with the other 5,000 chickens – for another four weeks on top of that. As a result of the chickens’ natural pecking order, some of those at the bottom of their social hierarchy may never even go outside at all. After this brutal life, the chicken is killed for meat. This is ‘free range’!

Depending on where you are in the world and what species and breeds you are looking at (eg egg-laying hens have different regulations to broiler chickens), the rules and regulations for free range certification vary significantly.

In fact, for some animals – notably pigs and cows – there are no rules that define them as free range at all. For these, free range is a term used in ethics-washing (that is, making products seem more ethical than they really are) where really the standards of welfare are either minimal or arbitrary.


A thought experiment

Let us imagine being asked to choose which life should end first, that of an animal spending their days outside in nature, expressing natural behaviours freely and eating nutritious, abundant food or a factory farmed animal, who is sick, diseased, lame, injured and driven daily to new depths of despair? It seems likely that this would be a straightforward choice – if we had to choose.

Of course, it would be better to take them to a sanctuary and not to slaughter either of them at all! Most people would agree then, that killing a young animal who has everything to live for, is unjust; yet, when it comes to what people believe about the myth of free-range farming, they reverse their judgements and are quite happy to kill the happiest of animals years before their prime.



Keeping animals in factory farms is cruel. Exploiting and farming animals in any way, free range or not, is cruel. Unnecessarily cutting short the life of a sentient being for no other reason than taste pleasure is cruel.

The only way to ensure that your diet is free from cruelty is to eat products that are free from meat, fish, dairy, eggs and other animal products. In other words, the only way is vegan!

About the author
Rory Cockshaw
Rory is a Viva! campaigner - which makes him, as he likes to tell people, a "professional vegan". When he is not talking to people about animal rights, he spends most of his time exercising - running, weightlifting, cycling, and (formerly) rowing - or cooking.

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