The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology released on Wednesday an issue paper on the Impact of “Free-range Poultry Production Systems on Animal Health, Human Health, Productivity, Environment, Food Safety, and Animal Welfare Issues.”

This publication serves to review what is known about poultry, egg and meat production with specific attention to available research on free-range production systems. Free-range poultry and cage-free eggs may command higher prices in the supermarket, but they offer consumers little or no demonstrable benefit in food safety or quality, animal health and welfare or healthful food, a panel of scientists concluded after a review of research papers.

Today’s consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from and how their food is produced. With regard to animal food products, animal welfare, food quality and sustainability have became key issues because consumers are increasingly concerned with the depictions of commercial poultry products issued by agenda-driven groups online, the issue paper said.

As a result of consumers’ changing perception of animal production systems, there has been an increased interest in free-range poultry production.  Although presently a small portion of the poultry industry in the United States, there is growing pressure by some consumers for transition from conventionally raised poultry to free-range poultry, production with improved animal welfare, improved product quality, and decreased environmental impact cited as justification.

The issue paper points out that the impact of free-range poultry must begin with a definition of what “free-range production” actually means. Free range and outdoor access are two terms that are often confused in the United States.  There are no legal definitions for either term.

In terms of the paper’s assessment of animal welfare for poultry, flocks raised under different production systems is complicated and, at times, controversial.  There are considerable differences regarding what constitutes acceptable animal welfare and how welfare status should be measured, the issue paper said.

In addition, the researches pointed out that the effect of free-range production systems on food quality is contradictory and can be confusing to consumers. Food safety is another factor in the production system debate as well a disease spread.  Sustainable animal production is also difficult to define and producers are under intensive pressure to minimize the impact of their production on the environment or carbon footprint.

The researchers conclude that “management is key to optimizing animal welfre in any production system.  Although many perceive free-range poultry production systems to be more animal welfare friendly, the research comparing the different production systems is inconclusive nd often contradictory.”

The CAST issue paper is available via the link below: