What’s the difference between “Free Range Organic” and “Pasture Raised” Chicken?

What’s the difference between “Free Range Organic” and “Pasture Raised” Chicken?

If you’re paying a premium for chicken that’s free range and organic, you may think you’re getting happy chickens raised outside on green grass. But did you know that loopholes in the meat labeling industry allow factory farms to use those labels while raising chickens in cement floored grow houses with lip service “access” to the outdoors? 

Don’t trust labels, meet your farmers

We’ve been there. Dumping tons of money on “the best” chicken, only to find out it’s basically the same factory-farmed crap we were trying to avoid.

That’s why it’s so important to take the extra step and actually visit the farm where your food comes from. If the farm is not open to the public, or prefers fancy commercials and illustrations over actual footage of the animals, you might want to think twice. Check out this article from the Intercept regarding Mary’s Chicken.

In short, here are a few differences between our chicken and certified free range organic (such as Mary’s Chicken).


Primal Pastures Chicken (Pasture-Raised)

“Free Range Organic”

Outside 24/7

Grown indoors w/ ambiguous “access to the outdoors”

Fresh air + sunshine

Poor air quality + high ammonia levels

Moved to fresh pasture everyday, manure acts as natural fertilizer to regenerate the land

Major manure waste issues, groundwater contamination

Species-appropriate diet: Bugs, worms, grass & seeds + supplemental Organic Soy-free GMO-free feed

Vegetarian diet: non-GMO corn & non-GMO soy

Environmentally regenerative

Environmentally damaging

Zero vaccines, zero drugs

Given vaccines & drugs

Slow-growing, heritage breed (11-13 weeks)

Fast-growing breed (6 weeks)

Active lifestyle, more dark meat (legs & thighs)

Sedentary lifestyle (more breast meat, often unable to support weight)


Inspect what you expect

We recommend that you “inspect what you expect.” So if you’re at the store, picking up a chicken breast in a nice green package that says “organic” you might expect that it comes from a lovely farm, where the chickens roam free on green grass. But is that really the case? Is the farm open to the public? How can you confirm that your expectations are in line with reality?

Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about the meat labeling industry, and been grossly disappointed. Here’s what we learned:


Free Range

Free Range means that chickens have "access to the outdoors." Sounds reasonable, right? Except that 99.99% of modern day conventional chicken is raised in what's called a “grow house,” a 600ft long x 40ft wide tunnel packed with 30,000-40,000 chickens. You've seen the photos.

This is no different for "free range" operations. All the company has to do to qualify for this label is cut a door at the end of the grow house that gives the chicken "access" to go outside for more than 2 hours per day. Do you think even 10% of those birds would venture outside to a 10'x10' concrete pad? Not a chance.

And it gets worse. These birds still need to be debeaked because cannibalism runs rampant in these confinement operations. Antibiotics are used heavily (even if they are 'antibiotic-free'), and a whole host of animal welfare issues are still prevalent.



The “organic” label just means that the chickens have been fed a certified organic feed. It doesn’t guarantee anything about the chickens’ quality of life.

They are never able to forage for bugs or grasses (part of their species-appropriate diet) but rather are only offered a grain based feed to fatten them up as quickly as possible. As a result, their legs are often unable to support their body weight and break under the strain of the extreme load. They’re often injected with antibiotics that sturdy up the legs and allow them to survive to six weeks. At this point, they’re processed for production, wrapped in plastic, sold to you at the grocery store, and fed to your families.


Pasture Raised

Labels can be tricky. Even the term “pasture-raised” (often thought of as the final word when it comes to completely natural, beyond organic meat & one of the ways we describe how we raise our meat at Primal Pastures), doesn’t always mean what you think it does.

Because there’s no legal definition of the term, pretty much anyone can claim to produce “pasture-raised” meat and suffer no consequences for misinformation.

free range organic chicken

Forget scary conventional chicken, the above picture could be sold as “Organic Free Range Chicken.” Just cut a door at the end of the building, dump in some certified organic feed, and hike up the price. Is that what you expected?



Conventional Chicken = grow houses, antibiotics & vaccines, gmo/soy feed

Organic Chicken = grow houses, antibiotics & vaccines, organic feed

Free Range Chicken = grow houses with a door, antibiotics & vaccines, any feed

Pasture Raised = no legal definition (unregulated living conditions, may include antibiotics, vaccines, gmo/soy feed)

Primal Pastures Chicken = 24/7 outside, NO antibiotics, NO vaccines, foraging for bugs, grubs, seeds & worms + supplemental organic, no-gmo/no-soy feed

This is a lot of bad news, especially if you’re where we were - trying to do the best for your family and paying a premium for something that doesn’t measure up to your expectations.

But rather than bug out or give up, we see hope. Hope in good people, local agriculture, and restoring the sacred relationship between consumer and farmer.

If you’re in or near So Cal, come visit us at one of our monthly public tours, or schedule a private group tour. If you can’t make it out to the farm, check out this video, where Farmer Paul shares how we do things here and gives a virtual tour.

You can also check out EatWild.com to find and meet local farmers near you.

See all articles in Primal Pastures Blog


Thank you for helping to knowledge me on this topic me and my group are making a poster on this topic and I have to admit this website has ben a great help. THANKS

Middle School student —

Knowing that conscientious, sustainable farming is alive and well gives me hope. I was very upset when the USDA decided to drop the humane Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices “OLPP” so we cannot even trust the USDA Organic Label anymore. Thank you for your dedication to humane farming.

gail prizzi —

Dear Food Activist,

I just first want to tell u how truly greatful I am for people like u!!!! And for the last couple of years now I’ve been wanting to Change my eating habits! Especially when it comes to Meat, Chicken & Pork, but I hadn’t really done anything about it beauce my husband had me concinced that we truly don’t really know whats in Anything Any More! But because of your blog, or whatever u call it, I’m definitely Changing my Choices when it comes to Meat…
Thank u ever so much. ~Sherry

Sherry Avillanoza —

I have done quite a bit of research on this topic and I find it absolutely disgusting that anyone can claim to raise free range chickens if the door is opened in their crowded containers for only 5 min a day. People need to be educated about these tricks. We are able to buy eggs from “Happy Hens”. I think that is one of the brand names and that is not how they raise their chickens.
When are you going to ship to our area? Port Saint Lucie FL.

Susan Olesch —

Just one question- Why don’t you ship to Nebraska???
I read article and it is affirmation to what I have been wondering. Every time I pick up a chicken labeled “free range” from a chain box store – I wonder how it’s possible. Where is this huge farm that has thousands of chickens walking around outside happy and free. They aren’t ☹️
Please ship to Nebraska!!

Annie Hadford —

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