UPDATED: JULY 19, 2019: adds further quote from Matt Wadiak in response to comments by Paul Greive and others about stationary houses.
It’s no secret that consumers want to know more about food production and animal welfare. Their appetite for knowledge is translating to a willingness to spend more money at the supermarket with 75% of consumers listing animal welfare as a chief concern and two-thirds reporting that they pay attention to labels reflecting animal raising claims. More importantly, 70% of companies report experiencing better sales when they include welfare-related claims on their labels.
As a result, packages for meat and egg products have undertaken the same transformation, ridding of their plain white paper wrappings for colorful imagery and countless claims regarding how the animal inside was treated before processing. Today, egg cartons look more like children’s coloring books adorned with cartoon chickens, bucolic farmscapes, and bearing more words than a Sunday crossword puzzle.
But consumers are being taken on a rollercoaster ride of label claims leaving some farmers feeling a bit chagrined at the claims of others. “Pasture-raised” is the latest label to start gaining consumer demand with the idea that chickens are roaming freely on pasture, not only benefiting their own health but regenerating the local ecosystem and demanding a higher price tag.
Slapping a pasture-raised label on a product can fetch substantial premiums and it’s a sizeable market: 77% of Walmart shoppers said they would increase their trust of a company if the company improves its treatment of farm animals while 66% said it would increase their chances of purchasing products from that company.
Recently this label got a big boost from Blue Apron co-founder and former COO Matt Wadiak who launched Cooks Venture, a pastured poultry operation and food delivery service in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Cooks Venture claims to be the first one of its scale in the US to produce slow-growing pasture-raised birds using regenerative practices and providing animals “unprecedented outdoor access, light, and fresh air,” according to its website.
But a group of poultry farmers has taken issue with the new business and others using similar practices, claiming their operations are not truly “pastured” and they’re misleading consumers by using the label.
And since the USDA and FDA have yet to define “pastured” or “pasture-raised” for labeling purposes, it’s unclear when consumers — and the industry — will get more clarity.
Unscrambling Poultry Labels
To understand the battle that’s developed among poultry producers over the use of various label claims, it’s important to trace the origins of America’s quest for more humanely raised food.
Consumers’ focus on conditions for laying hens intensified in 2008 when California passed Proposition 2, a landmark ballot measure that required farmers to provide more space for egg-laying hens as well as breeding sows and veal calves. Throughout the industry, laying hens were raised in battery cages affording each bird no more space than a standard size sheet of paper. Prop 2 required producers to provide enough space for each hen to stand up, turn around, spread her wings, and more.
Many consumers applauded the switch to cage-free and countless fast food chains and restaurants were quick to announce that they were making a switch to sourcing exclusively cage-free eggs in their supply chains. At least 160 companies have made the announcement including McDonald’s, Walmart, Kroger, Starbucks, White Castle, Burger King, and Taco Bell.
But whether it affords the animal welfare upgrades that diners desire is another story. Many consumers believe the cage-free label means that the birds have access to the outdoors, but that isn’t the case. The FDA defines cage-free eggs as having been produced by “hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” Noticeably absent from the definition is access to the outdoors, meaning that a laying hen in a cage-free operation could live her entire life without setting foot on grass or seeing blue sky.
In the spirit of differentiation and competition, a number of producers began offering poultry products under a new label: free range. The label is intended to take a stab at cage-free production by alerting consumers to the reality that birds in cage-free housing systems do not have access to the outdoors. For many consumers, knowing that an animal was able to go outdoors and engage in its natural behaviors is an important metric when deciding which products to buy.
The USDA has provided a definition for free-range systems, requiring that products sold under the label are produced by animals who have “been allowed access to the outside.” In reality, however, many free-range systems offer birds nothing more than a screened in porch with a cement or dirt floor.
Despite the legal definitions for both label claims, consumers are having a difficult time identifying the differences. According to research from egg producer Vital Farms, 92% of consumers didn’t understand a distinction between cage-free and free-range eggs. The majority thought that both “cage-free” and “free-range” mean the birds have been raised outdoors.
The wild, wild west of pasture-raised poultry
After discovering that cage-free and free-range labels weren’t all they were cracked up to be, consumers began seeking egg products from hens that are provided unrestricted access to pasture.
Products bearing a “pastured” or “pasture-raised” label claim garner a substantially higher price compared to their conventional counterparts. During a 12-week period ending June 18, 2017, eggs bearing label claims that they were produced by pasture-raised hens rose 24% compared to just 15% for eggs labeled as free-range and 0% for eggs labeled as cage-free.
For Blue Apron co-founder Wadiak, finding better ways to produce poultry products has become not only a passion but his next business venture. Cooks Venture recently purchased two processing facilities in Oklahoma and an 800-acre farm in Arkansas where it will produce slow-growth heirloom chickens.
On the 800-acre farm, birds will be raised in large-scale grow houses that have doors allowing access to the outdoors. After a batch of birds is raised in one of the stationary houses, the house will be given an opportunity to rest so that the surrounding forage will have an opportunity to regrow while a new batch of chickens is started in one of the other large-scale barns on the property, according to Wadiak.
“We describe our system as unrestricted access to pasture, except in conditions of extreme weather,” Wadiak tells AFN. “Poultry is the most impactful for the food system nationally because the largest US crop is corn and 30% of our corn goes to ethanol production at an energy loss, while 19% of corn goes to ruminant animals, but because they have a rumen they are biologically designed to ferment celluloid material and convert it to bone, muscle, and tissues. Biologically speaking, putting corn inside cattle is like putting sugar in a gas tank. It’s not appropriate and not biologically designed for man-made feeds.”
“In the cases that we do feed ruminants, we should do it more conscientiously for the purpose of overwintering or during drought with crops grown in regenerative systems that are more suitable to the needs of the animals,” he adds.
Stationary Houses vs. Mobile Coops
But Cooks Venture’s operation looks different to the operations of members of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA).
“If the average person walks on [a farm with stationary houses], they would be walking into barns with thousands and thousands of chickens inside on their own manure. That’s not what they think of when they are told its pasture-raised,” Paul Greive, CEO and co-founder of Pasturebird and APPPA member, tells AFN. “95% of the time, the birds will stay inside the barn on their own feces. They are descended from jungle fowl and they like to be under shade during the day. And like any creature, they will expend the lowest energy possible, which means they’ll stay close to their food and water inside.”
“A small percentage may be curious enough to go outside, but the reality is that most of them will be living, defecating, breathing, and eating off the same soiled litter every day. For the few that do go outside, they consume the surrounding pasture instantly, leaving a barren dirt area around the house that takes a long time to recover.”
Greive’s journey to raising pastured poultry began in his own backyard with 50 chicks. He was battling a number of health problems and turned to his diet to find relief, but found that labels like grass-fed, free-range, and even organic fell short of offering the quality that they seemed to convey.
He eventually co-founded Pasturebird, which raises poultry in mobile coops without the use of antibiotics, or other drugs. The company has grown into the biggest true pastured poultry operation in the US, according to him, moving chickens to fresh pasture every day. The company’s goal is to prove that the regenerative model of farming can be scalable, and for Greive that means moving millions of chickens to fresh pasture each day.
“We want to show that at scale, pastured poultry can be done as efficiently as stationary poultry without antibiotics, soil erosion, and vaccines while producing a healthier bird with higher welfare, building healthy soils, and a more nutrient-dense end product for the consumer. You don’t need to clean out barns full of manure that could be feeding the soil instead,” he explains. “We have respect for all different types of production and farmers. We are just really big believers in transparency and innovating around stationary production models.”
As a member of the APPPA, Greive and hundreds of other producers raise chickens in mobile coops that adhere to a strict ideology about this niche production methodology, popularized by farmer Joel Salatin. This ideology eschews systems where birds are kept in stationary houses. According to APPPA’s website, pastured poultry embodies a few key tenets of production:
The birds live a significant portion of their lives outside on vegetated pasture; the birds are rotated to fresh vegetation often in a managed way; flocks are housed in lower stocking densities to ensure the birds can express their natural behaviors without stress and injury to themselves or other birds; in addition to the forage offered via pasture, the birds eat a nutritionally balanced feed that is appropriate for the species and age of the flock; slaughter is typically done in small-scale or exempt facilities by hand in a way that respects the life of the animal.
Unsurprisingly, members of APPPA and producers who use this methodology have a bone to pick with corporations that use stationary barns while also labeling their products as pasture-raised, but Wadiak has a bone to pick with their methodology as well.
“There are different schools of thought. I have no issue with raising chickens in stationary barns with bedding and allowing them to go outside and sequester nitrogen in soil and move the chickens through a rotation of houses just like you would move them around in a mobile environment,” Wadiak explains. “What I am against are sleds dragged across grass and chickens exposed to the elements with wet feet and blistered paws. Chickens need bedding. That is the bottom line. If a chicken is in the wild, a jungle fowl, it will find bedding and nest down and if they can’t nest and bed down it is harmful to the bird. I love the passion and theory of the Joel Salatin method but I disagree with it philosophically for husbandry reasons.”
Wadiak later added: “There are innovative and humane ways to incorporate stationary shelter in the pasture raising of birds. The suggestion that the use of stationary structures alone lumps a producer in with how the conventional producers operate is misleading to consumers. Cook’s Venture’s system is built around our breed of bird – a bird that is genetically bred to be outdoors – and rotation of birds in houses to allow the land to regenerate and sequester biological matter. We’re committed to regenerative systems, raising our birds outside, good genetics and increasing consumer awareness to the harmful practices of conventional producers.”
Are consumers being mislead?
Vital Farms, a group based in Austin, Texas, follows a stationary houses-based operation like Cooks Venture but is equally vocal in the debate over what pasture-raised really means. It recently ran an advertising campaign called “Bullsh*t Free” in which images of a farmer and hens walking around on pasture are featured. The farmer in the video begins by referring to other farms that “boast about being cage-free” followed by this statement: “Our pasture-raised eggs are bullsh*t free.”
The video describes cage-free farms as “big, cramped warehouses” but what the farmer fails to mention, however, is that its growers raise hens in similar barns and houses with doors providing outdoor access. The video only shows hens on grass and does not provide any images of or reference to these barns and houses, potentially misleading consumers about its production practices and welfare standards.
In August 2016, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and others filed a lawsuit against Handsome Brook Farm alleging that it sold eggs labeled as pasture-raised when in reality its production methodologies — stationary barns like Cooks and Vital Farms — and welfare standards fell short of consumers’ expectations. Vital Farms also sued the producer alleging that its operation didn’t live up to its product labels.
Mike Saldero, CEO of ButcherBox, an online monthly meat delivery service, says purchasing stationary barns, adding doors, and calling it pasture-raised is wrong.
“Brands are taking advantage of the lack of consumer knowledge and the spirit behind pastured poultry,” he told AFN. “The spirit behind pasture-raised is not ‘open the door and let them out,’ the spirit is to have them actually out on pasture eating forage.”
ButcherBox originally offered pasture-raised poultry under its private label, but eventually dropped the offering from its inventory when customers reported that the meat was either too tough or that the cuts were too small. It still offers pastured poultry products from other farmers on its website.
The problem for APPPA members, who produce poultry by rotating mobile coops on fresh grass every day, is that the unregulated label means that large corporations with the resources and means to convert stationary barns by adding a few small doors can quickly outproduce them and offer cheaper prices at the grocery store.
Furthermore, due to the high labor demands and costs of production, the small-scale farmers that make up most of APPPA’s member base, often lack a consistent or robust enough supply to meet a traditional grocery retailer’s needs, or simply prefer to sell directly to the consumer.
“It’s a very scalable model to take a grow house and to call it pasture-raised or free-range because there are tens of thousands of grow houses out there that can house 20,000+ birds,” Greive says. “Slap a label like humane, slow growth, pasture-raised, heirloom, or regenerative on the box and people will generally believe. Add a few pictures of some birds running around outside and people will really believe it.”
What’s a conscious consumer to do?
The debate on whether pastured-poultry ought to be restricted to operations that move birds to fresh grass in mobile coops, or whether it can encompass operations using large-scale barns with doors to the outside, largely boils down to a debate about what’s best for the chicken.
Advocates of restricting the term to mobile coops on fresh grass are quick to point out that based on their behavioral patterns the chickens rarely leave the large-scale houses even though there are doors to allowing access outdoors. Companies that are producing products in large-scale barns usually reply by arguing that mobile coops leave birds exposed to the elements year-round.
Some would like to see the USDA or the FDA come up with a definition for pasture-raised poultry, but others have concerns over what that definition may ultimately allow.
“If the USDA came out with a definition of pasture-raised, that would be fantastic. But the concern is that it will be advantageous to large-scale companies, which is what happened with the grass-fed label. The definition of grass changed to include things that aren’t really grass like corn stalks. You can feed a feedlot steer feedstocks and silage and maybe some grass and it will still be considered 100% grass-fed according to the definition,” Saldero explains. “There are very few producers in the US doing true grass-fed production.”
For Greive, consumers will largely have to take the laboring oar when it comes to bringing clarity to the murky waters surrounding pasture-based production.
“Consumers are paying the price big time. Joel Salatin asks, ‘Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic than they will into choosing the person that grows their food?’ It’s the 21st century and it’s never been easier to know your farmer, take a farm tour, and to go look up their website or social media and figure out what they are really doing,” he says. “We have hosted more than 15,000 people for farm tours in the last 5 years, and this is really the gold standard for consumer education. Know your farmer! Don’t let profit-dominated companies play games and sell you fancy labels and pictures when they’re doing something very different on the farm.”
Until the FDA and USDA create a formal definition for the pasture-raised label, consumers will have to bear the burden of ascertaining the truth behind each company’s production practices. With so many pressing issues such as the regulation of CBD products, implementing a new nutrition facts panel protocol, and the US opioid example, for example, it may be a long time before either agency takes action.