So, this is a tricky one. “The real demarcation line in this industry is whether they're in cages or in cage-free systems,” says Shapiro. Cage-free doesn’t mean cruelty-free; chickens that are technically cage-free can have their beaks chopped off, can be crammed into a huge flock in a small space, can have no access to the outside, and can have all kinds of other nasty qualities. But no matter what, says Shapiro, cage-free is better than caged.
On the other hand! There is absolutely no regulation over the use of the phrase, meaning that anyone can technically say their chickens are cage-free. Now, Shapiro doesn’t think that any major producers would flat-out lie about that, but they certainly could provide a system that, while technically without cages, is unhygienic, cramped, dangerous, and miserable, and slap a label on the carton saying “cage-free.” In theory, good, but in practice, you’ll want this label to be augmented with something else.
Free-range or pasture-raised
This is very similar to cage-free, in that the idea is very nice but that nobody is around to actually make sure the spirit of the label is borne out in practice. Free-range augments cage-free by adding “access to outdoor space,” and pasture-raised implies that the chickens spend the majority of their time outside. “Access” is a lousy word here. “It doesn't specify how much space they have, how often they have access to the outdoors, what the quality of that access is,” says Shapiro. You could open a large window into an airshaft once a week for 10 minutes and say your birds have “access” to the outdoors.