You probably have your version of what “free-range” means — or should mean. Perhaps you imagine chickens happily scampering about, free to hunt and peck in pretty green playgrounds, foraging for healthy, chicken-friendly nibbles with their fellow feathered friends — before getting taken through some dreamy, magical, humane process by 12t-generation organic local farmers who don't so much kill, but lull the lives out of chickens that have lived long, fulfilling lives and now long to fulfill your eco-friendly dining fantasies.

Alas, that is not actually what free-range means, at least to people who put those words on a package of meat. According to Salon’s food writer Francis Lam, free-range has a legal definition — “Producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside” — that’s not quite as nice as it sounds. “Some producers include a fenced-in section of open concrete in their grow-out houses, with enough room for maybe 5 percent of the thousands of chickens in that house, and this may technically satisfy the term,” Lam writes.

What’s a locavore who only wants to eat healthy, well-fed, humanely raised chickens and eggs to do? Start by reading Lam's article. In it, he explains what free-range, organic and natural mean — so you know which claims match your definition of food worth eating.

You’ll be shocked by some of the nice-sounding labels that actually denote not-so-yummy-sounding practices! “Naturally enhanced,” for example, has an extra healthy ring to it — but really means that the chicken labeled as such may be pumped up with sugar, “natural flavoring,” or “a broth made from the bones of that animal.” Ick!

Once you’re done reading Lam's explanations, head over to Grist, where Michelle Venetucci Harvey goes beyond general words to look at “humane” food labels. You know, those small logos and stamps you see on some egg cartons and meat products that say that what you’re buying has earned the approval of nice-sounding organizations. What’s better for the chicken or the egg — Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved?

If you answered Certified Humane, you’re wrong — though that certification still prohibits wire cages, requires 1.5 square feet per hen, and mandates perches and dust bathing — and thus sounds far superior to the United Egg Producers Certified label, which doesn’t prohibit wire cages.

Harvey put together a handy chart of “humane” labels and what they mean for egg labeling. Reading that chart will make your head spin — and maybe lead you to wonder, how humane is humane enough for a chicken? What about humane enough for you? Are you cool with hens just having some access to outdoor space? Or do you think each chicken should have a minimum 4 square feet of outdoor space? And really, can you say you know enough about chickens to be making these kinds of evaluative judgments? After all, I’m guessing many of you don’t know what dust-bathing is, let alone how important dust-bathing may be to the welfare and happiness of a chicken.

Lam's best advice is to look for the organic label. That’s good advice when you're shopping in a grocery store — but many MNNers also have the option of buying from local farmers markets, where they can ask questions that concern them the most without bothering to memorize all the labels and logos.

I’ve dealt with the confusion by simply not buying eggs or chickens — except as cooked-for-me dishes at restaurants that specifically claim they source locally or organically. This obviously isn’t a perfect solution, as it often requires badgering waiters who often aren’t particularly well-informed about the treatment of the chicken they serve, let alone chickens in general.

How do you deal with the chicken and the egg question?

MNN homepage photo: EEI_Tony/iStockphoto

Figuring out chicken and egg labels
Don't know the difference between "free range" and Certified Humane? Learn what the labels on your chickens and eggs mean.