The phrase "pasture-raised" at the market probably does not mean quite what you think makes it worth the premium you paid for…
Sometimes I think I’ve learned all of the whitewashing tricks used at the grocery or even farmers’ market stands.
Inevitably I get brought back down to earth when a new shortcut or misleading claim comes to my attention.
Here is a short video about what I recently learned about the “pasture raised” eggs popping up all over the place.
If you’re like me, you want to know the details, science and explanation for things.
As such, I have included a more detailed discussion below (I hope you’ll join in the discussion too!) .
Best to watch the video before reading the details, I think it has some useful context.
As discussed in the ‘Grass Fed’ No More article I wrote a few years back, the USDA appears complicit in the white-washing of food labels.
The system is set up so that when consumers look for higher quality products, the USDA regulates the use of the terms used to describe the improvements (i.e. ‘Grass-Fed’, ‘Organic’, ‘Pasture Raised, etc)
We should all WANT the USDA to do this. Someone needs to define these terms so that they actually mean something — allowing consumers to have confidence their food was raised as they expected (and paid a premium for).
Unfortunately, the USDA often does this in a way which waters down the meaning of the term so much that the reality of the way the food is raised is nothing like what consumers expect the terms mean. This allows big agriculture to use those terms without improving their production models.
In the case of “Pasture Raised” for poultry, the definition is simply ‘access to the outside’. So there is ZERO labeling difference between the eggs that say ‘free range’ or ‘pasture raised’ (and I think most of us know by now that ‘free range’ can simply mean a factory without cages and a tiny door no chickens ever use)
In fact, since even the factory organic laying hens are required to have some sort of ‘access’ to the outside, 100% of certified organic eggs appear to qualify as “Pasture Raised” even though the hens may never see the light of day outside.
So to be clear, when you are buying any poultry products in the store, the term ‘pasture raised’ only means access to the outside. One should probably assume there is no green grass and that the birds are raised about the same as ‘cage free’ factory chickens.
In the past, US consumers could tell the quality difference between our eggs and the fake “Pasture Raised” eggs in the store because even the $8/doz eggs were pale in color just like the factory eggs. It was clear they were not on green pasture like they claimed.
I noticed all of a sudden one of these brands had a dark yolk color. Just out of the blue.
And the other thing I noticed was that 100% of their eggs were a nice rich dark color.
Hmm.. I’ve never had a flock of hens that had 100% consistent yolk color - I wonder how did they do that on a massive scale?
I found the answer: They appear to use a feed additive which colors the yolk any color they choose so they can make it appear their hens were really on green pasture.
There are several types of colorants used, the organic version is just $6 or so per ton of feed. Apparently many farmer’s market sellers use this type because it is inexpensive and makes for a really dark yolk without having to put the birds on pasture. I don’t personally have any health concerns with this additive; however, I feel it is rather deceptive.
The synthetic version used in non-organic eggs is approved for use in the EU and appears to be widely used there as well. There are some concerns about its use, but most science appears to show it is safe.
Some argue that the products add nutritional value; however, I feel this is an inaccurate description since the intent of the products are purely to color the yolks darker and allow lower quality, less healthy eggs pass as a healthy egg.
Their use dilutes consumers ability to control the quality of the food they feed their family.
As a consumer trying to buy the best raised food I could, I was so disheartened when I toured those local farms only to find messy feedlots, conventional conventional corn and other concerns mixed in with the lush fields.
Seeing all the meaningless claims out there on eggs combined with the proliferation of colorants in the yolks, has started to bother me. Let’s break down a few of the ones I have seen on the egg cartons which relate to pasture.
Claims to have certain amount of space of access seems really important, but sadly is only half of the story.
These companies don’t share the size of the factory-style barn the birds are housed in or have any standards to ensure the birds actually use that space. As such, the claims for the amount of space becomes irrelevant:
Hens don’t like to venture very far from their shelter or nest boxes. It isn’t safe for them and it is 100% against their nature.
Even a small CAFO/factory has about 9,000 laying hens in each barn (most are 30,000). With that many birds, there is no way a meaningful number of those hens would venture more than a couple of acres away from their barn.
Those couple of acres will quickly be turned into bare dirt with 9,000 hens scratching and pecking all over. It will still be “pasture” according to the USDA, but probably not according to you and me.
If the hens actually have enough doors to get outside and turn that field into bare dirt, that is an improvement in animal welfare. However, from a health and for sure environmental aspect, it is a step in the wrong direction.
I will agree that a well managed 108sq ft per bird is a fantastic number. However, that requires a flock size about 1000 birds or less. That works out to about 2.5 acres of pasture per flock — a reasonable amount of space for them to actually explore.
The trouble with the companies claiming the 100+ sq ft of space is that they do not share how many hens are in each flock.
It is extremely unlikely they have only 1000 birds because the equipment required to automatically collect the eggs would be WAY too expensive for just 1000 birds.
This means, they probably have many, many more birds.
Although probably larger, let’s pretend each flock was half of the smallest size CAFO (or about 4,500 birds). At 108 square feet, that would mean 'access' to 11 acres.
I can’t see any way hens would regularly venture out 11 acres from their home barn.
That many birds in one barn creates animal welfare issue and would ensure the nearest 3-4 acres of “pasture” would be just dirt because the birds would destroy all of the growing grasses.
They might have ‘freedom to range’ to the other 8 acres, but that land would be unused and probably would be cut for hay or more likely just be part of a row crop system since the birds would rarely range that far to utilize it.
The sheer amount of eggs being produced at fairly cheap wholesale prices is what requires them to use the colorants in the feed to get their yolks to appear as if they are raised on actual pasture.
This isn’t what I think of when I think “pasture raised”, but thanks to the USDA rules, this is probably what most “Pasture Raised’ hens call home (if they are lucky and actually GO outside)
These terms are 100% meaningless.
Every chicken ever can claim to have ‘fresh air’ or ‘open skies’. Even something like ‘sunshine’ we would think has some sort of regulatory meaning, but it doesn’t. Traditionally even the biggest factories have had windows that would be opened to help regulate temperature or air flow.
These terms are used to make consumers think they are buying a higher quality product than they really are. Since there is no regulations on what those terms mean, I’d recommend against thinking they impact the quality of the product you are buying.
The interesting thing about the CAFO / Factory farms is that the companies who are marketing the food to consumers don’t want to actually be IN the farming business. They sign up families under long term contracts which ensure very minimal income with 100% of the risk on the farming side.
For pigs, this means the ‘family farms’ that are contracted by the pig pork companies, they are lucky to make $15 per pig they care for.
For the many of these families, they are caught in a tough spot where they have all the debt and obligations, but are bound by the terms of the contract and their income, standards and quality of husbandry is outside of their control.
“Tending by Hand” or “Family Farm” doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the pasture these hens are raised on.
The families running these operations don’t typically have control over how their animals are raised, someone in a corporate office decides that for them.
Some of the more reputable companies marketing ‘pasture raised’ products actually have photos of their birds on green pasture.
That’s all well and good. It might mean the birds are raised on what you and I would call “pasture”.
However, I have personally watched companies take their 100% confined birds outside to unused pasture for the purpose of producing videos and getting photos and then put them back into confinement after.
Unfortunately a decade after starting our hobby farm, I have come to realize that we just can’t trust a photo without any supporting list of standards or pasture requirements. Those photos and videos might be representative of the normal life of the animals, but it might not be.
That’s why when we created OUR standards, it includes an important clause ensuring that all TC Farm pasture must be green and un-denuded during the growing season.
Internally we talk about ways to continually improve our pasture quality: fewer animals? more frequent rotations? different seed planting?
We are dedicated to high quality pasture and to transparency about the challenges and successes we achieve along the way.
We get asked all the time about how our hens can be pasture raised in the winter.
As much as they love Minnesota winters, the animals under our care clearly can't have green growing grass with the ground covered in snow!
In the summer the animals are just like us and prefer to be outside in the cooler morning and evening hours and seek the shade during the sunny hot part of the days. In the winter, they prefer to be outside during the warmer mid-day warm sun and shelter during the colder parts of the day.
We provide greens to our hens all winter, mostly in the form of organic alfalfa and they love going outside to peck and scratch in the snow!
As a consumer, I simply want the best food possible or at the very least more transparency in our food system.
I would very much value your candid feedback about videos/articles like this in the comments below or offline via email.