Cage Free Eggs:
“Cage-free” means that the chickens raised as poultry or the hens laying “cage-free” eggs are, quite simply, not kept in cages. They are free to walk around the hen house, to perch on roosts, and to lay eggs in nests.
“Cage-free” chickens are kept in poultry barns, often in cramped conditions, and may or may not have access to outdoors and pasture.
The technical meaning of “Free-Range” as regulated by the USDA calls for poultry to be “allowed access to the outside.”
As you might imagine, that phrase can be interpreted generously or quite narrowly. Some farmers let their free-range chickens roam on real fields and pastures. Larger producers, however, have been known to follow only the letter of the law, not its spirit, and put an open window or small door that leads to a paved patch of ground at one end of a large, crowded hen house.
Organic eggs are required to come from chickens that are fed certified organic feed (that is, feed grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, irradiation, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms) and are both cage-free and free range. Look for this label on any product labeled organic. Organic is a legal term and a farmer must be certified to use it.
Pastured eggs are pretty much what we all would like our eggs to be. They come from chickens living the way you might imagine a chicken would want to live: they walk around in open fields and woods, foraging for food (primarily seeds and insects, with the occasional small rodent or reptile if they can get them), and going back into a hen house at night to roost, nest, and lay eggs. Note: chickens are not natural vegetarians.
Importantly, “pastured” doesn’t have a legal meaning or certification process. Pastured eggs tend to come from small farms; the farmers often sell at farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer methods. It is usually easy to find out more about a specific farm that sells pastured eggs since they are often rightfully proud of how they care for their animals.