There's a lot of terms that get kicked around in the farming world when speaking of eggs and other livestock products. For right now, let's just focus on translating what certain lingo means with regards to chickens and eggs. Some terms are interchangeable or perhaps have some slight variations over another, so I'm not trying to ramble even though it sounds like I might be.
First, though, let's look at the background. The resources required to feed the population of the country, who are largely located in urban settings, is no easy task. Various methodologies were developed over the decades to try and get food to market quickly and efficiently. As a result, in some industries, regard for the welfare of the animal was muted to focus on gaining the most production, in the shortest time, with the lowest cost.
One of those methodologies was to cage chickens in the production of eggs and meat. Chickens can require a lot of room to roam looking for food (I'll dive more in-depth into this in another post). However, in a controlled environment where they are given an exact ration of feed, more chickens can be managed on a smaller footprint of land.
Some number of years ago, people started noticing that the nutritional value of the food and the treatment of the animals was a bit lacking, and they wanted to see change made to conditions in which their food was produced. Thus, a movement was born, and new lingo to describe it was developed...kind of.
Cage Free - Most people would like to think that cage free means that the chickens are dancing around pasture, frolicking in the cage free sunshine. That's not actually what's going on in most cases. Cage free simply means that the chickens aren't kept in individual cages. In many instances, they're just roaming about the floor of a barn with up to 50,000 other chickens.
Free Range - This is probably one of the most used, yet most ambiguous, terms out there in the chicken world. On one hand, some "free range" operations are pretty much identical to cage free operations. On the other hand, some free range operations do give the chickens access to the outside world, albeit, sometimes very limited as far as space to roam and time allowed outside. Ultimately, the only thing you can really bank on when you see the term free range is that the chickens aren't kept in cages.
Pastured - Pastured has become a term that more accurately describes the conditions in which a chicken is raised. Pastured means that the chickens have full access to the outside world within a pasture setting, to include all the seeds and bugs they can scratch up. In some instances, pastured operations use what's known as chicken tractors. Those are enclosures that are used to focus the chickens forage to a certain area. Chicken tractors can be a fantastic way to manage the health of the pasture foliage and soil health (we use a few of them ourselves). They are also great as another way of protecting against predators.
Certified Organic - Since the prices of organic grocery items are sometimes several times higher than conventionally grown products, the government decided that they should own the word organic. An organic certification means that you paid the government a lot of money for what amounts to a licensing fee to use the word organic. It takes three years of using organic practices to achieve certified organic status. With regard to egg production, all that's required is that the chickens are fed nothing but certified organic feed, and they have to at least have access to an outside area. Similar to a prison yard, chickens are given a space that is generally smaller than the building they live in to walk around in the sunshine for a few minutes.
Hopefully, this helps to at least get you thinking about what these terms mean as you're making a purchasing decision on your family's food.