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Is There a Difference Between Organic and Free Range Poultry and Eggs?

by Organic Trust

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Confusion can arise amongst the food-buying public in relation to claims regarding nutrition, fat content, good/bad carbohydrates - even complex carbohydrates - it can all be too much to digest! At times the consensus would appear to be that one would need a degree - just to read the ingredient listings for some products!

There are, however, genuine misconceptions when it comes to choosing between certified organic eggs and poultry, and free-range eggs and poultry. This leaflet aims to assist the consumer in making an informed choice when buying poultry and poultry products - we aim to inform you of the difference between a certified organic product and a free range product - and the differences are significant!


Whilst free-range production is a method of food production, organic farming is part of a complete farming ethos whereby participating organic producers use a total production system which works in harmony with nature and with our environment. Food production is an integral part of the farming calendar or cycle, so a certified organic producer must think about the effects their work has on the welfare of the animals on their holdings and on the wider environment as a whole.

Management of hedgerows to encourage wildlife and the provision and maintenance of habitats for helpful predators like birds and insects are just some of the things organic farmers consider when producing food and this in turn enhances and protects our countryside.

The ‘Organic Principle’ might, therefore, be described in the following way:

“organic farmers believe our environment is not something we inherit from our parents, but rather something we borrow from our children”


In general, free range producers feed their flocks with standard feeds such as those used in conventional battery production units and factory farms, including caged systems and barn rearing systems, the main stipulation being that such feeds at the fattening stage contain at least 70% of cereals - there are no requirements regarding the GM status of such feeds; their origin; their method of production or the type of seed used - whereas in certified organic production, all of these areas are of primary concern.

Additionally, certified organic producers have a legislative obligation to use certified organic grain-based feeds free from specific additives.  Organic producers are prohibited from using feeds or substances containing synthetic amino acids and are prohibited from using any feedstuffs which have been solvent extracted.  The Organic Food & Farming Standards in Ireland stipulate the specific list of feedstuffs permitted for use in organic production systems and organic producers must adhere strictly to this listing.  A small % of non-organic feedstuffs may be used by organic producers on an annual basis, however, such feedstuffs must be guaranteed to be free from genetically modified organisms - in general this precludes organic producers from using any of the conventionally-produced concentrate feedstuffs.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are prohibited throughout the organic food chain -  this is not a requirement of free range systems.

So if ‘we are what we eat’, then one can readily differentiate between free range eggs and poultry and organically certified eggs and poultry.  The organic products have been produced using only the highest quality strictly controlled naturally produced feedstuffs - of which at least 95% has been sourced from certified organic raw materials.  The cost of these feedstuffs has a direct bearing on the price of the end product as organically certified feedstuffs can cost up to 100% more than conventional feedstuffs.


The regular feeding of antibiotics to flocks of birds is a permitted practice in conventional rearing systems including free-range systems. This is the routine treatment of birds with antibiotics as a pre-emptive management practice aimed at illness prevention.  In addition, in-feed coccidiostats are also used in many free-range systems.

Organic producers, on the other hand, are prohibited from administering antibiotics to healthy birds and prohibited from the use of any routine or preventative veterinary treatments.  Of course in cases of specific illness, organic birds may need some veterinary interventions, however, these must be prescribed by a veterinary surgeon and their use is strictly controlled by the Organic Standards.  Any use of veterinary medicines in organic production is subject to the implementation of withdrawal periods which are twice the statutory periods recommended for the specific product being used - this ensures that treated birds or produce from that bird may not enter the organic food chain until this additional withdrawal period has been fully observed.

Routine mutilations such as beak trimming are not permitted in organic production.  Free-range production on the other hand actively encourages de-beaking and also permits practices such as clipping of claws at chick stage in order to distinguish one breed from another or even to distinguish the sexes among particular flocks


The average lifespan of a conventional or free range bird for the table is circa 56 days for a chicken and 70 days for a turkey.  Alternatively, an organic bird will, on average, live on an organic farm for almost twice that time - circa 81 days for chickens (table birds) and 140 days for turkeys (table birds).

The added length of time results in a slower growing bird which dramatically reduces the pressure placed on the younger bird’s legs and this in turn results in less injuries and ailments such as those associated with conventional rearing systems - the organic system, therefore, results in a natural rearing regime.


The static housing density for free range poultry is 27.5kg/sq m whereas under certified organic conditions the birds may only be stocked at densities comprising of 21 kg/sq m.  In addition, the number of birds in a housing unit under certified organic conditions is a maximum of 4800 broilers, however, under free-range conditions 10,000 birds per housing unit would be commonplace.


While free-range producers are inspected to ensure they have adequate conditions to facilitate a free range enterprise, organic poultry farmers are mandatorily inspected at least once annually and quite a few will receive other unannounced spot-check inspections. Organic inspections audit the entire production system from feed to animal welfare - all of which are fully prescribed in The Organic Food and Farming Standards in Ireland, i.e. all aspects of the production system from farm to plate are subject to the inspection system and must comply with the rigorous standards for organic food and farming laid down under (EC) Regulations 834/2007 and 889/2008 as amended [Organic Farming Regulations]. 


So back to the original question:

Organic or free range is there a difference?

Clearly the difference is obvious.  Whilst free range production systems do offer the opportunity to birds to access open air runs,  in essence this is the only significant difference between free range production and conventional production. 

On the other hand certified organic poultry producers are subject to a strict production regime based on sound organic principles which cover the whole farm system - all with the aim of protecting our fragile environment; maintaining a respect and concern for the welfare of our animals through strictly controlled rearing conditions and the use of high quality certified organic feedstuffs; an avoidance of contamination from antibiotic residues and GMOs - all of which results in wholesome and nutritious end products produced under conditions which nurture a respect for the sustainability of the land we live on.


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