The vast majority of animals raised for food in the U.S. are not raised on pasture. They are either continually confined indoors or in crowded feedlot for many months. A “pasture raised” claim suggests that the animals were raised on or with access to a pasture. However, government agencies that oversee food labeling do not have a common standard for a “pasture raised” claim and do not require third-party verification or on-farm inspection. When the “pasture raised” claim appears on a label, consumers should look for additional labels that provide assurance that the “pasture raised” claim is meaningful and verified (see below).
What this claim means
A “pasture raised” claim on meat, poultry, dairy, or egg labels means that the animals were raised for at least some portion of their lives on pasture or with access to a pasture, not continually confined indoors. Raising animals on pasture is not the industry standard; the vast majority of dairy cows and beef cattle are confined indoors or in outdoor feedlots for a portion of their lives and fed a high-grain feed ration, rather than being allowed to graze on pasture. The vast majority of chickens and pigs are raised inside with no access to the outdoors.
However, government agencies have no common standard that producers have to meet to make a “pasture raised” claim on a food label, no definition for “pasture,” and no requirement for the claim to be verified through on-farm inspections.
On beef and dairy products, a “pasture raised” claim on the label does not mean that the cows derived all their nutrition from grazing on pasture or that they were 100 percent grass fed. Cows that are raised on pasture can be given supplemental grain, both during the grazing season and winter months. Consumers wanting to buy dairy or beef from cows that were 100 percent grass fed should look for a verified “grass fed” claim.
Why it matters
The natural diet of a cow is grass, and grazing on pasture is an important natural behavior for cows. However, the vast majority of lactating dairy cows in the U.S. (80.1 percent) are not kept on pasture but rather housed indoors and fed corn and soy in addition to hay to increase milk production.
When cows are given access to pasture during the grazing season and acquire at least some of their nutrition from grazing, the milk they produce is higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and has a more favorable omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio, compared with milk from grain-fed cows.
Nearly all laying hens in the U.S. are raised indoors, with no access to the outdoors. In fact, the vast majority (90 percent) of laying hens are confined in small cages for their entire lives.
For chickens used in the production of poultry and eggs, outdoor runs and pasture offer the opportunity to forage, which is an important natural behavior. When given the opportunity, chickens will spend a majority of their active time foraging, which consists of pecking, scratching, harvesting seeds, and eating insects. When chickens are unable to engage in natural foraging behaviors, welfare problems such as feather pecking can arise.
Some preliminary research on the nutritional content of eggs suggests that egg yolks from hens raised on pasture have favorable omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio, which is considered beneficial for health.
How meaningful is the label?
On dairy and egg labels, the claim is not meaningful because there is no common standard for producers making a “pasture raised” claim and no requirement for verification.
On meat and poultry labels, the claim is somewhat meaningful. Producers making a “pasture raised” claim are required to explain the term on the label, but the USDA allows producers to write the explanation and therefore define the term.
In our 2016 survey, when consumers were told that the USDA often allows companies to set their own standards on meat, the clear majority (94 percent) of consumers said companies should meet the same standards for labels on meat, rather than setting their own standards.
Consumers wanting to buy meat, poultry, dairy, or eggs from animals that are raised on pasture should not rely on the “pasture raised” labeling claim alone. Those consumers should look for additional labels that indicate that meaningful standards for access to pasture were met.
Is the claim verified?
On dairy and eggs. The Food and Drug Administration oversees labeling on dairy and eggs. The agency has no common standard for producers to make a “pasture raised” labeling claim and does not require it to be verified.
On meat and poultry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires labels on meat and poultry with a “pasture raised” claim to be approved by USDA staff. The agency requires that companies explain the “pasture raised” claims on the label with additional terminology to define the meaning of the claim.Companies submit a one-time label application with documentation that supports the “pasture raised” claim. Supporting documentation includes:
- A detailed written description explaining controls for ensuring that the animals are raised in a manner consistent with the meaning of the claim that is valid from birth to harvest or the period of raising referenced by the claim;
- A signed and dated document describing how the animals are raised to support that the claims are not false or misleading;
- A written description of the product tracing and segregation mechanism from time of slaughter or further processing through packaging and wholesale or retail distribution;
- A written description of the identification, control, and segregation of non-conforming animals/product.
USDA staff only conducts a one-time desk audit (reviewing paperwork submitted by the company) but does not conduct annual audits or on-farm inspections. Third-party certification of the claim is not required.
What additional information on the label tells you the claim has been verified?
These seals mean the “pasture raised” claim is verified and meaningful:
These labels have some requirements for “pasture raised,” but the standards fall short in providing meaningful pasture access:
The “pasture raised” claim on labels with these additional seals is not meaningful: