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Originally published January 27 2009

Health of Your Poultry: Free-Range and Cage-Free Illusion

by Susanne Morrone, C.N.C.

(NaturalNews) Many health-conscious consumers shopping for poultry look for the words "cage-free" and "free-range" on the packaging. They envision happier, healthier birds accessing grassy pastures. This, however, is not the reality on most commercial farms.

Toronto's Globe and Mail reports a new study conducted at Sweden's National Veterinary Institute. Dr. Oddvar Fossum and his colleagues found that uncaged chickens are at greater risk for disease and infection compared with their caged counterparts. The crux of the problem is where the roaming is taking place. Hundreds of uncaged chickens are on walk-abouts through filthy litter-based floors. Some have only limited access to the outdoors.

The study, published in Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica, noted that husbandry systems for laying hens were changed in Sweden during the years 2001-2004, with an increase in autopsy submissions from the farms. The researchers compared the causes of mortality in different commercial housing systems during this change. Dr. Fossum, assistant state veterinarian, stated: "We found that there was a higher occurrence of bacterial diseases, parasite disease in birds housed in the litter-based systems."

Colibacillosis, erysipelas, coccidiosis, red mite infestation, lymphoid leukosis and cannibalism (from pecking) were listed as the most common causes of mortality. The specific autopsy results of 914 hens from 172 different flocks revealed:

Bacterial diseases, especially E.coli, were the most common cause of death among all chickens studied. About 73 per cent of litter-based flocks and 74 per cent of free-range flocks were infected with bacterial diseases, compared with 65 per cent of caged flocks.

Parasitic diseases were found in 23 of 129 litter-based flocks, including five of the 23 free-range flocks. Only two of 20 caged flocks were infected with parasitic diseases.

Viral diseases infected 15 litter-based flocks, one free-range flock and six caged flocks, according to the study.
Cannibalism was noted in 24 litter-based flocks, six free-range flocks and one caged flock.

To address this problem, Swedish health officials have begun vaccinating and using some medicine to stop the spread of disease. Dr. Fossum said more research should be done to determine the risks of litter-based housing, and how to decrease the chance of bacterial infection or other disease.

Today, 60 per cent of chickens produced in Sweden are raised in litter-based systems, while the remaining 40 per cent are in "furnished" cages, which are larger than conventional ones. The caged-birds have room for activities such as nesting and perching. Litter-based systems are also the most common ways to house commercial flocks in both Europe and North America.

The moral of the story is to know your poultry source if you choose to eat it. Organic tells you the chickens were fed organic feed and were not given antibiotics or hormones in production. Cage-free and free-range, however, needs to be clarified.

Toronto Globe and Mail January 15, 2009 "The Dark Side of Free-range Chickens"
Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, 2009, 51:3 (January 15, 2005)

About the author

Susanne Morrone, C.N.C., is an author, speaker and natural health educator. Her book, "The Best Little Health Book Ever," is the quintessential natural health primer. She is also included in "101 Great Ways to Improve Your Health" by Her mission and educational outreach is found at

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