What Does Pasture Raised Mean
Per the Environmental Working Group Pasture Raised means “ruminant animals were raised in a pasture where they can roam freely outdoors and are able to eat grasses and other foods their bodies are adapted to digest”. Ruminant animals include cattle, sheep, and goats (not pigs).
When we envision pasture-raised, we often think pasture-raised means animals living in paradise. Access to lush green grass, lots of space, and animals being able to partake in all their natural instincts like rooting, dust bathing, and laying in the sun. Unfortunately, that is often not the case, even with pasture-raised or cage-free claims.
There are several different categories and organizations that deal with meat claims. This includes the private sector and the government. Each has its own certification process, and it is important to understand this if you are looking to purchase the best quality and most humanely raised meat.
Grass-Fed vs. Pasture Raised
Grass-fed refers to what the animal eats. Pasture-raised refers to where the animal eats. An animal can eat grass in the form of hay and not have that much access to the outdoors. But often if an animal is indoors they are eating grain. An animal can also be outside on pasture, but there may not be much grass for the animal to eat due to cold weather or poor pasture management systems.
The two can definitely be the same with animals on pasture eating grass, but with our current food system and producers always looking for loopholes and profit, you never know! If you want to eat meat or dairy that comes from a pasture-raised system that includes limiting or no grain consumption then it is important to understand labels and to know what to ask.
The USDA Requirements
The National Organic Program Pasture Raised certification from the USDA has its own specific regulations in order to be labeled as pasture raised for ruminant animals. Ruminant animals include cattle, goats, and sheep. These are animals that eat plant-based food by fermenting it into a specialized stomach prior to digestion. These regulations went into effect in 2010.
- Animals must graze pasture during the growing season which is 120 days per year
- Animals must consume a minimum of 30% dry matter (pasture) during the grazing season
- Producers must have a pasture management plan and maintain pasture as a crop (grow their own foraging material)
- During the finishing feed period (before processing) animals are exempt from the 30% dry matter intake requirement, but must have access to pasture during this time
The USDA does not have a certification for pasture-raised pigs. They only offer organic certification in which they state “Pigs are required to have access to the outdoors, but raising pigs on pasture is not required by organic regulations.”
The USDA has regulations for Free Range and Cage Free eggs, not pasture-raised.
Eggs labeled as “free range” must be produced by hens who have unlimited access to food, water, and access to the outdoors during their egg-laying cycle.
The USDA states that eggs labeled as cage-free “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, and water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.”
For meat birds, there are no pasture-raised or grass-fed requirements. The USDA has only an organic certification that does require outdoor access, but no strict regulations on how large a space they have access to. It just states that meat birds “have year-round access to outdoors, soil, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, direct sunlight, clean drinking water, materials for dush bathing, and adequate space to escape aggressive behaviors”.
There is no requirement of how much of their nutrition needs to come from pasture or forage material. Organic grain is allowed and is what most organic meat birds are raised on.
What are the Gaps in USDA Certification
Although the USDA does have requirements and regulations, they are considered the bare minimum. One hundred and twenty days is only 1/3 of the year. Many parts of the country can graze their animals for much longer.
There is no clear specification of how frequently during the day they must be outdoors or how much space is required when indoors.
Animals meant to be slaughtered for meat do not need to be finished on pasture. According to the regulations, they are able to be fed organic grain in feedlots right before.
These loose regulations have prompted some third-party certifications to come about which have stricter requirements for pasture-raised. They are independent from the USDA and may have seen their labels at the grocery store or local farms proudly displaying them.
Third Party Regulations
Certified Animal Welfare Approved
Certified Animal Welfare Approved by a Greener World has more stringent requirements for pasture-raised. They have very specific and detailed regulations, unlike the USDA organic program. Their standards are for both ruminant and non-ruminant animals including poultry, laying hens, and pigs
Some of their requirements include
- Continuous access to pasture except in extreme weather.
- Feedlots are not allowed
- Grain IS allowed to be given
- Grazing areas should be used in rotation. Both extensive and rotational grazing systems are permitted.
- There is a minimum pen size depending on the animal
- More regulations regarding feed, medications, veterinary care, types of feeders, breeding, transport, and slaughter are all outlined.
American Grass-Fed Assocation
The Grassfed Association has standards for ruminant animals, pork, and dairy animals.
- Do not allow grain feeding
- Do not allow fed-lots
- Must be kept on maximum pasture
- Must have pasture management plans in place that include rotation and pasture management plants
- Must be allowed to partake in their natural behaviors with exceptions to emergency situations that may threaten the animals or soil
Certified Humane is another third-party organization that has its own regulations for labeling. They focus more overall on the treatment of farm animals. There are no outdoor requirements for farm animals except meat cattle, which does offer the option for a grass-fed claim.
Beef cattle must have continuous access to pasture after rearing from their mothers. If using the grass-fed claim, they must be fed only from pasture and forage except for additional supplementation like vitamins and minerals. There are space requirements for indoor pens.
Grass-fed systems are optional for dairy cattle unless making a grass-fed claim in which the dairy cattle must have continuous access. If not using the claim, there is no required outdoor access. There are regulations for pens depend on stages such as calves, pregnancy, and lactation
Chickens (both meat birds and laying hens)
Outdoor access is not required for this certification. The regulations for indoor housing their housing that including being able to spread wings, having sufficient access to water and feed at all times, and ventilation requirements.
There are no outdoor requirements for pigs. Only indoor requirements state that they are free to turn around without difficulty and they must always have access to straw.
How to Find Pasture Raised Eggs, Meat and Dairy
Besides looking for the certifications listed above, one of the best places to find pasture-raised products is directly from local small farms. You can ask questions and they may allow you to come to the farm. Depending on where you live you can buy directly by going to the farmers market or through a CSA.
Local Harvest is a great place to look for farmers’ markets. There are also quite a few online stores that deliver pasture-raised meats and other products to your home. Some include Primal Pasture, Butcher Box and Farm Food Market.
Nutritional Benefits of Pasture Raised
A recent 2022 review from the Journal of Food Science and Animal Resources found that beef from grass-fed cattle contained less total fat than from cattle who ate an all grain diet. In addition there less total saturated fatty acids and a higher omega 3 lipid profile.
Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce heart disease, and inflammation and be protective against cancer
A 2020 study by the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that organic milk from grass-fed cows had a higher number of healthy short-chain fatty acids per serving, particularly during the warm season.
Short-chain fatty acids are good for your digestion by promoting good gut bacteria, helping to absorb minerals from our food, and helping to reduce inflammation.
Purchasing real pastured raised meat, dairy and eggs is a great way to support the food system, environment, and farmers who are doing the right thing, and a way to advocate for better animal welfare.
It isn’t always easy to find real fully pasture-raised meat and meat products, but understanding the labels is a great start.