By Matthew Yglesias
First off, terms like ‘free-range’ and ‘cage-free’ don’t always mean what people think (and hope) they mean. In fact, because there is very little regulation for these words, they basically have no meaning whatsoever. Cage-free is simply that the chickens aren’t raised in battery cages but that doesn’t mean they aren’t stuffed into huge houses with forty thousand other chickens, leading only a slightly less miserable life than if they were in cages. And free-range chickens do have access to the outdoors, but it does not mean that they are actually using it.
Right now, the term ‘pasture-raised’ isn’t very regulated either. In general, it refers to a system where the chickens are grazed outdoors in movable shelters and are fed organic feed, free of hormones and antibiotics. Pastured chickens are allowed to be chickens: scratch in the dirt, eat bugs, take dust baths. It’s a fairly new term and until someone comes along to exploit it, it’s the one I trust the most.
Velden’s ultimate advice is that you need to “find a good farmer you can trust and pay what you can for their products.” That seems sensible, though at the same time I’m not totally sure how you would put it into practice. The vendors at the Bloomingdale Farmer’s Market all seem trustworthy to me, but I haven’t personally verified the provenance of all their chickens. Ultimately, I don’t think trust- and market-based approaches to this sort of thing are really viable. The financial incentives for cheating are pretty big. Insofar as things like humane treatment of chickens remains a purely niche concern, trustworthy farmers may be in high supply as a personal mission. But if the market grows, the unscrupulous purveyors will tend to crowd out the scrupulous ones. What’s needed, ultimately, is a better regulatory fix in which “cage-free” or “free-range” designation will do a better job of corresponding to real humane treatment of animals.