Organic, free-range, cage-free, ‘natural’

I knew this was going to be a problem.  But I didn’t really believe how bad it was going to be.

I like meat and I’ve never had success with my brief experiments of doing without it.  (Though unlike both the boyfriends who inspired me to try it, I did at least stick it out for the agreed time.)  On one occasion going pescatarian seemed to tip me over the edge into anaemia, and both times I thought about meat constantly.

So instead, for the last few years, I’ve been mainly eating humanely reared meat.  Sometimes I falter, especially in restaurants: chicken jalfrezi is my weak point.  But in supermarkets I buy free-range chicken (and occasionally duck), outdoor-reared pork, and lamb, which is best of all because the fields sheep gambol in are generally on marginal land.   This is easy enough to do in Sainsbury’s or even the Co-op, with no need for trekking off to specialist shops.  And of course I buy free-range eggs.

Apparently, 2/3 of British shoppers buy free-range or organic eggs these days.  The range in our local Sainsbury’s in Leeds used to be quite bewildering – free-range, woodland free-range, Yorkshire free-range, proper organic – probably ten different lines that I can’t now remember.  The last time I remember even having an argument about the ethics of buying free-range was with my mother (hello, Mum), c.1992.

God, things are different here.  First, incidentally, you can’t buy a box of 6 eggs in a supermarket – you must go for a full dozen.  Then, Jewel and Dominick’s don’t carry any free range eggs at all.  You’re probably envisioning some tiny shop with a handful of product lines, but you’d be wrong – there’s an entire aisle of cereals in Jewel, for a start, and there are lots of eggs, just none free range.  And there’s no sign of free range chicken or pork, and if there’s lamb, I haven’t seen it – possibly it’s hiding somewhere, cowering in terror at the oversize beef joints.  Peapod, the online company that delivered our groceries this week, has one pack of free range chicken breasts available, and one kind of outdoor reared pork chops, but nothing else – no whole chickens, for example.

OK, so then I think: clearly if I want ethical food I must shop elsewhere.  Whole Foods Market here I come.  Now, in Fresh and Wild, the UK version of Whole Foods Market, eggs and meat are mostly fully organic, with a few products that are conventionally farmed (i.e. with use of agro-chemicals)  but free range.

Again, not here.  From a full display of chicken (see above), only two small packs (sorry – out of shot owing to my incompetence in the presence of a staring shop worker) are designated free range.  The rest make far weedier claims: no growth hormones (then in small print: Federal law forbids hormones), raised with some daylight, Amish farmed (gee, that must make them wholesome), ‘natural’.  I’ll save my rant of hatred against that last term for another time.

Last week I assumed that I hadn’t properly understood the eggs terminology, and bought some ‘cage-free’, thinking this must be the US equivalent of ‘free-range’, since it was the label on several of the Whole Foods egg cartons.  No.  It’s what we call in the UK ‘barn eggs’, something I would only knowingly buy if absolutely desperate: the hens are shut up indoors most of the time.  After quite a bit of internet searching, I finally found a good explanation of American egg labelling, which makes for rather depressing reading.

I can’t account yet for why things are so different here.   The page I linked on free range egg consumption, above, puts it down to the celebrity chef factor, given Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaigns.  But better welfare eggs had a 40% market share even before that, back in 2006. Maybe it’s the fabled British love of animals; maybe it’s the positive influence of the EU.  Whatever it is, I can’t think of anything funny to say about how things are in America.  I’m too shocked.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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9 Responses to Organic, free-range, cage-free, ‘natural’

  1. Other Cathy says:

    I have also had experienced this problem, and as a result I don’t eat much meat. Our regular supermarket sells free-range chicken breasts and eggs, but that’s about it. I have never seen any free-range meat in Whole Foods. In any case, I refuse to shop there after the man on the meat counter tried to convince me that the reason four lamb chops cost $25 was that lamb is not produced in Colorado (this is SHEEP COUNTRY!).

    I think the American middle classes are more concerned with the chemical content of what they put into their bodies than animal welfare – hence the bewildering array of ‘natural,’ organic and hormone-free meats.

    A nearby farm does deliver free-range animals. We don’t really have freezer space for half a pig and the poultry is very expensive (definitely a treat rather than something I’d buy every week), but you might want to look into that.

    • In an earlier draft of this post, I said you had warned me this was going to be bad, and you were quite right.

      Totally agree that Whole Foods is catering for my-body-is-a-temple yuppies rather than actually doing anything positive for the environment. This is for another post, but our branch is full of apples flown in from New Zealand and tomatoes from – wait for it – Holland, when neighbouring states are overflowing with both, as witness our wonderful farmers’ market. (But Whole Foods is our only really nearby food shop that’s open on a daily basis, so I’m going there quite a lot.)

      Thanks, I’ll look into farms – I definitely want to get a free range turkey, at least!

  2. Expat Mum says:

    Hi – Thanks for popping over to Pond Parleys (my other blog). I agree that Chicago is pretty shite for free-range etc food. And Whole Foods is an over-priced joke. I can’t remember whether the farmers’ markets sell eggs, but it’s worth a look. Usually to be found on Wednesdays and Saturday mornings, although not for much longer. No meat though.
    Contact Nick Spencer at Spencer’s foods ( – he makes his own bangers here of great quality and could probably point you in the direction of good meat.

  3. L says:

    I had no idea. How depressing. Suddenly I understand the whole J S Foer et al vegetarian frenzy stuff.
    Maybe you need to go pioneering and raise your own chickens. Erm, in your window box. Small chickens?

  4. Ariane says:

    Cathy, try Trader Joe’s: it’s all organic and for the same price as regular food… I’m surprised you’re having problems with food, but then I never shopped in Chicago. Food has always been a problem for us here in England: it’s very expensive and it’s also very hard to find good, fresh fruit and vegetables (in comparison to many other countries)… unless you pay a fortune.

    • Yeah, I’m keen to try Trader Joe’s. Unfortunately there isn’t a branch anywhere at all convenient, but there are a couple in areas we might go to occasionally (including one near the Magnificent Mile.) I’m going to post some farmer’s market pictures soon – makes fresh fruit and veg really easy, and it’s much better than markets I’ve been to in Britain.

  5. Ariane says:

    I know what you mean: in California, I had to rely on car rides when people where available, there’s no way I could have biked to TJ’s! But there must be other good sides to living in the US. Give yourself some more time…

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