How an animal is “shepherded” can make a big difference in how that animal ends up on your plate and is ultimately incorporated into your body. For a variety of reasons ranging from social, religious, personal and palatability, you may want to find a source of a particular livestock product that is not from the more traditional CAFO/AFO (Concentrated / Animal Feeding Operations). When talking about livestock of any sort there is a myriad of marketing terms that get wrapped around the fundamental question you likely are trying to answer - how was this animal raised?
Rather than denigrate any particular methodology of raising livestock, I’m going to focus on the virtues of pasturing any animal intended for consumption. And while the focus of this discussion is poultry – the same basic premise applies across all livestock (sheep, goat, hog and cattle).
CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), sometimes referred to as factory farming, industrial farming or agribusinesses is fundamentally about getting the maximum output in terms of animals per square unit of space in the shortest period of time. Part of the definition of an animal feeding operation (AFO) of any type is the fact that the concentration of animals and the duration of their stay in a single location precludes the growth of natural vegetation and therefore requires external feed to be brought in. By using “tools” like antibiotics, hormones and pesticides, these types of operations can achieve very high stocking densities well beyond what could be sustained naturally without intervention. This approach to farming leverages economies of scale in production and tends to measure the outputs in quantity not necessarily quality (measured in flavor and health). There are ongoing debates about the impact of this type of farming on the environment, the animal well-being raised under these conditions and the ability to feed a hungry and growing planet without this format of production.
CAFO or AFO produced meats are the most common sources for your supermarket shrink wrapped butcher counter. Due to the absolute focus on lowest price – these are typically your cheapest meats to purchase as a consumer as well. Typically the next level of pricing will include the basket of terms including “organic” and/or “free ranged” and/ or “open ranged”. (the term organic and it’s meaning have been discussed by me before)
Unfortunately, the legality of those terms is very different for the farmer who implements them compared to what the consumer actually perceives them to mean. For example, a consumer might be confronted with the option to purchase 3 items in their local grocery store – free range beef (or pork), free range eggs and free range chicken. Likely, the average consumer would picture an idyllic pastoral setting in which the cows and chickens lounge amongst the green grass of the open range. Here’s the reality of the legality of the implementation the farm made to bring these products to market:
Free Range Beef (or Pork) – Bottom line: The USDA has no specific definition for “free-range” beef, pork, and other non-poultry products. Meaning – the label “free range” is completely unregulated and uncontrolled. Since 2002 there has been an effort to define the “minimum requirements” for this labeling, but at the time of this writing – the term still means nothing. It comes down to providing some sort of supporting information to the claim – should the farmer ever be questioned. The term is purely used in marketing a product. The only term that means “something” for beef and pork is “grass-fed” – but that’s a whole different discussion.
Free Range Eggs – Remember when I said “The USDA has no specific definition for “free-range” beef, pork, and other non-poultry products” – well, oddly enough eggs are not covered here. Bottom line: There is no specific criteria for an egg to receive the label “free range”. It’s a buyer beware situation – if you can’t see the farm or don’t know the farmer – you are just taking the unregulated packaging at face value.
Free Range Chicken – We have established that the USDA has something to say about the labeling of a chicken as “free range” – but what? Well, the USDA makes this requirement very clear – they require that chickens raised for their meat have access to the outdoors in order to receive the free-range certification. That’s it. How much “outside”, what’s out there, how long… open to interpretation. So – could the CAFO picture above have an opening to the outside where access is provided – although only a handful of the 10,000 birds will ever stray that far from the food and water – sure – and since the access is there – this producer just made 10,000 free-range chickens for a higher market price.
So what is a consumer to do? How do you purchase a great tasting, humanely produced, naturally fed and healthy piece of meat in this confusing world of marketing and labeling. Well – the obvious answer is – get to know your local farmers. Meet them – look them in the eye – shake their hands – and visit their farms. SEE the conditions your food is raised in. It amazes me when I talk to people about this and they say “ohh no – I don’t want to see the (insert meat here) while it’s alive”… but these are the same people who can drop something on THEIR clean kitchen floor and not even want to wash it off for dinner because it fell on the floor and was dirty. I just don’t get it.
Our chickens are raised via a method called pasturing – and is supported by the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association – the chickens are given plenty of space in a open bottom pen in the pasture that is moved every single day (twice in the last week of their life) to a new location. They eat un-medicated hormone-free feed, fresh grass, bugs, worms and all the things a chicken should be eating. They get plenty of fresh air and fresh water. They don’t stink or smell. They are in balance and fertilize the pasture as they move along. They are friendly, unstressed and well cared for… ohh, and they taste amazing.
You know – You are what you eat.
Live free and eat well - Pasture to plate!
And check out our Coop Cam to see what some of our chickens are doing right now!