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

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's CAFO's vs. Free Range page and our All About Organics page.

"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. 
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