A poultry farmer, Robert Plamondon, warns that eggs and chickens labeled free range are just disguised factory farms.
Is it true that a lot of "free-range" eggs are from birds that are really being raised in confinement?
Yep, it's true, all right. All the "official" free-range systems that I've come across are scams, at least by my standards. This includes both the totally unconvincing U.S. free-range egg producers, and the "Let's give our scam a governmental seal of approval" EU system.
My test for a free-range system being "real" goes like this: If you move all the feeders and waterers outside, do any chickens die of hunger or thirst? Obviously, in a true free-range system, where all the chickens wander in and out of the building all day, it doesn't really matter if the feeders and waterers are indoor or outdoors. They'll be fine either way.
But in fake free range, the goal is to run a factory-farm operation while getting a price premium for the "free-range" label. The best way of doing this is to discourage the chickens from going outside, through the use of doors that are too few or too small, and by other methods. If only a handful of chickens actually go outside, you've really got a confinement operation, and can run it like any other factory farm. But if most of the chickens never go outside, if you moved the feeders and waterers outdoors, many of the chickens would die.
Here's how you do this: Chickens can recognize about 100 other chickens, and hang out with the ones they know. If they have to go past a lot of strangers to get outside, they won't go outside. So all it takes is a long walk past other chickens, and they'll never even try to go out the door. Given the immense size of modern chicken houses, this problem is almost insurmountable. You have to use more and smaller houses if you want to do it right. This, plus the other sources of increased labor in real free range, makes real free-range eggs very expensive to produce. I guess consumers prefer scam eggs to the more expensive real ones.
The same situation is true to an even larger degree with free-range broilers, since meat birds have been bred for lethargy, and are less willing to trek long distances to reach an outside door. [emphasis mine, excepting the header]