Free-range meat - is it all equal?

If you buy free-range, how do you make sure you get what you pay for?
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  • Updated:6 Mar 2007

01.Free-range meat

Chickens on grass

In brief

  • Free-range meat is currently short on definitions and standards, but there are a few labels you can look for to get the best guarantee you’re getting what you’re paying for.
  • The Humane Society International’s new Humane Choice label will be worth looking for when it becomes available in mid 2007.

Free-range can mean a variety of things — the only common bottom line is that, as for all meat production, the general welfare requirements under state-based animal welfare acts and codes must be met. Free-range animals, just by dictionary definition, shouldn’t be closely confined and will have some sort of outside access, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee animals an old-MacDonald-like experience of wandering through a farmyard of green grass and shady trees.

There are labelling schemes you can look for that give the best guarantee currently available that you’re getting what you probably think you’re paying for.

Please note: this information was current as of March 2007 but is still a useful guide today.

Industry-based schemes

Some industry groups have good schemes that certify the meat was produced to certain free-range standards and codes of practice; others just leave it to individual farmers (see the sections on individual meats: pigs, cows & sheep, chickens).

  • Some industry schemes are audited from outside the particular industry.
  • Others schemes are audited by auditors within the industry but outside the particular farm.
  • There are no government audits of any meat industry free-range standards.

Animal welfare

The Australian arm of Humane Society International (HSI) recently launched its own Humane Choice labelling scheme. It says this was done in response to the many enquiries it receives from the public, asking which meats to buy. Up to now, HSI has recommended people buy certified organic meat. But it says its new standards go further and they’re certified by one of the same government-checked schemes that certify organic produce (NASAA — National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia)

Not all animal welfare groups are equally happy to endorse free-range or any other kind of meat. Many argue that the only way to truly protect animals is to become vegetarian or vegan. This isn’t something everyone’s prepared to embrace, and the pros and cons of various animal-raising systems are beyond the scope of this article.

How much does it cost?

A CHOICE snapshot of prices in Sydney supermarkets suggests buying accredited free-range poultry costs a few dollars per kilo more — about 20% extra. Certified organic meat can cost as much as twice the price of the conventional alternative.

Supermarket meat

In addition to specific branded products, both the big supermarkets have their own-brand free-range and organic meats.

  • Coles has YOU’LL LOVE COLES Free Range chicken, accredited by FREPA, and YOU’LL LOVE COLES Organic beef and sausages, certified by Safe Food Queensland (SFQ).
  • Woolworths has WOOLWORTHS Organic (beef, lamb, pork and poultry), which it says are certified by one of the national accreditation bodies. WOOLWORTHS Free Range poultry is accredited by FREPA.


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