Why? Because free range has no standardized legal definition in the United States. While we would like to think that our free range chickens roamed free 24 hours a day, the more likely probability is that our winged friends were allowed out of their cages for a short period of time, given a glimpse of sunlight before shoved back into their metallic prisons. With the passing of prop 2 in California, at least we know that these cages need to meet some kind of government regulation as far as size and capacity is concerned… but it still doesn’t imply the free range we had in mind.
Why would farmers not comply with the consumer-centric idea of free range? Because this is too expensive! And it isn’t even necessarily the farmer’s fault. With the scrounge to make profits, especially now, it requires way more money that it is worth to raise chickens in a completely free range environment. The government subsidies only go so far.
In one study testing for the microbiological prevelance of Salmonella in free-range chickens, it was found that of the 135 chicken carcasses tested for the bacteria, 31% were tested positive for Salmonella. In fact, in one of the tested lots, 100% of the chickens tested positive! (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16300088?dopt=Abstract) These statistics completely ruin the consumer assumption of these free range chickens being 100% clean. They do present a cleaner option; however, by no means are these free range chickens completely exempt from possible disease and bacterial invasion.
What’s my point? If there were governmentally regulated terminology to standardize the definition of free-range (as has been done with certified organic) there would be much less variability in the quality of meat, dairy, and egg products consumers purchase. Do not have blind faith in that which you buy commercially, go do some research before you buy. You’ll thank yourself as your ignorant buddies heave over the toilet for having blindly accepted those supermarket fallacy terms as indicators of a quality product.