‘Pasture-Raised’: Can This Under-the-Radar Food Label Go Legit?

As the beyond-organic term becomes more popular, concerns arise about maintaining its true meaning.

Visitng the pasture-raised tukrey at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Twilight Greenaway is an Oakland-based writer and editor who has been working on the web since 2000.

“Pasture-raised.” In recent years these descriptive, evocative words have become synonymous with the real thing: Meat and eggs produced on open fields, generally at a scale that is both humane and ecologically friendly. In other words, it has become the anti-factory-farming label, more likely to show up in places like farmers markets and websites advertising animal shares and meat CSAs.

And when it comes to meat, some producers (and their customers) see “pasture-raised” as a step beyond organic. That designation has some standards in place for the animals’ access to the outdoors, but organically raised livestock still often relies heavily on grain-based feed rather than grass and the other wild foods (and bugs) found on open pasture.

Pasture-raised has gone hand-in-hand with practices that are transparent and integrity-filled since 1996, when Joel Salatin used the term in his book Pastured Poultry Profits. But here’s the catch: it may not always. “Pasture-raised” has no rules, no formal definition, no regulation, and therefore no enforcement behind it. And just like “free range,” a term which likely started out as a legitimate claim and now has come to mean very little, “pasture-raised” may be on the verge of mass appeal—and the eventual dilution that comes with it.

In fact, as “pasture-raised” and its cousin “pastured” begin appearing in big grocery stores, on everything from meat to milk and egg cartons, it’s already beginning to raise a number of complicated questions.

Marilyn Noble at the American Grassfed Association admits that a great deal of the meat she buys directly from the local farmers in her area is labeled “pasture-raised” —especially if it’s chicken or pork, which cannot technically be grassfed (a term that only applies to ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, and bison). But it’s the relationships she has with farmers—and the transparency that allows—rather than the label that keeps her coming back. 

“If you see grassfed on a label,” she adds, “it means that the animals were fed nothing but grass and forage from weaning to harvest. And usually there’s been no confinement at any point during their lives. It’s a very broad definition, but if you see it on a label, you know it’s been approved by The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and has meaning behind it. Pasture-raised means whatever the person using it wants it to mean.”

Andrew Gunther, Program Director of the third-party certifier Animal Welfare Approved, agrees.

“The problem with ‘pastured’ and ‘pasture-raised’ is that they’re very bucolic. Someone comes up with a nice phrase to evoke a feeling in their production system, and someone else will come along and steal it.”

Case in point? The NatureRaised line that Tyson Foods plans to release this month. The new antibiotic-free product can be seen as a step in the right direction for the chicken giant, but it’s very likely the birds are raised a very long way from anything Nobel or Gunther would recognize as pasture.

“The [pasture-raised] brand has been below the radar,” says Gunther, “and it’s beginning to be on more people’s radars. But if people want to use it with depth and meaning, they have to protect it.” And that, he adds, can only happen by defining it on a formal level—and enforcing that definition.

Kelley Escobedo, who co-owns South Texas Heritage Pork with her husband, Mark, uses the term to describe her products. “I tell people to look for pasture-raised, but I also tell them to get to know your farmer, because I’ve seen farmers use that term very loosely,” she says.

And although the Escobedos started farming—like many do—so they could do things their way, she also now recognizes the value of formalizing (and regulating) the labels we put on our food.

That said, it would be especially tough to regulate a term like pasture-raised, because, as Escobedo puts it, “different farmers are working with so many different environments and conditions. What if it’s snowing for a big part of the year? And animals being outside is less healthy for them?” On the other hand, farming has made her a very savvy shopper.

“When I look at this as a consumer, I don’t want to just see a pretty pictures of pastures. I want to know how the animals are actually are raised. So if there was a way to incorporate the terminology around pasture into some kind of official labeling, it would help consumers a lot.”

Just to make things extra confusing, meat, eggs, and dairy producers all appear to have different uses for the term pasture-raised. In the case of eggs, Vital Farms is working to define it as its corporate brand on their own terms. A relatively new national company, Vital appears to be genuinely pushing the limits of what a nationwide egg brand can do by working with a number of smaller farms and holding up a stringent-sounding set of pasture standards, and the use of certified-organic feed. The down side? An uninformed consumer might take the answer to the question “What is pasture-raising?” on their Frequently Asked Questions page to apply to all foods made by companies that make that claim. And, again, that opens up the market to imposters and opportunists looking to get in on the latest buzzword.

In the case of dairy, the national co-op-based brand Organic Valley, has recently begun using the term “pasture-raised” on some of their products and in their marketing materials. However, according to Eric Snowdeal, Organic Valley’s Milk and Cream Product Manager, the company sees “pasture-raised” as applying to all organic milk.

According to Snowdeal, Organic Valley was instrumental in pushing for the current organic milk pasture guidelines, which were decided on back in 2010, and require that all organic-milk-producing cows spend at least 120 days of the year grazing on pasture, and get at least 30 percent of their remaining food from pasture (in the form of hay or silage). Organic Valley has heavily embraced pastoral imagery and much of their packaging is now covered with cows, grass, and happy farmers.

“Grazing and pasturing is a fundamental principle of organic farming,” says Snowdeal. “It’s inherently different from non-organic milk—and that’s what we want to communicate to people.” And although many of Organic Valley’s cows live in places where they can graze for an even larger portion of the year, and the company prides itselves on going above and beyond that standard, Snowdeal says he wouldn’t be bothered if another big brand, like say Horizon, started using “pasture-raised” too. “That could be a raised boats for everyone kind of thing,” he says.

In the case of their “100% grassfed” milk—a specialty item produced in Humbolt County, California, where grazing can take place all year long, Snowdale says there is more confusion from consumers who are used to seeing the label on meat.

But with pasture-raised, it’s still early enough that the average consumer doesn’t have a strong association. So Organic Valley can get in on the ground floor? “Exactly,” says Snowdeal.

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