There’s a lot confusion about the terms cage-free, crate-free, pasture-raised, pastured, free-range, and free-roaming. It’s not you: producers want you to be confused.
Producers put cage-free and crate-free on labels because these terms conjure pastoral images (a practice known as greenwashing). But all these terms actually mean is that cages and crates aren’t used; they don’t mean that the animals aren’t crammed into small, dirty, indoor spaces.
Free range and free roaming mean that the animal has some theoretical access to the outdoors, not that the animal actually spends any time outside. The USDA only requires that outdoor access “be made available.” The door to the coop or stall could be opened for five minutes a day in an area that the animals cannot see, and this still qualifies as free range. (Gee, USDA, thanks for regulating these labels — you make me feel good about paying taxes!)
Pastured and pasture-raised mean, thankfully, what you would imagine they mean — that the animal spent plenty of time outside, eating what it was meant to eat. These are the labels to look for (although bear in mind that the USDA doesn’t verify producers’ labeling claims, so nothing is really for certain).
Here’s an at-a-glance explanation of the differences between cage/crate free, free-range/roaming, and pastured/pasture-raised:
Speaking of glances, on Sunday night we heard Joel Salatin speak at Teacher’s College. Joel is the sustainable farmer featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc., as well as the new film Fresh. He said something interesting: we think that “seeing is believing,” but it’s not true; instead, believing is seeing. It’s only once we are able to believe something that we can see it.
Whether or not that’s true in this case, the images above convey something I can’t.