Livestock Lingo: Organic, Natural, Free-Range?

Buying meat direct from your local farmer is a great way to control the quality of your food as well as support farms that are using humane practices. But with all of the marketing terms out there today, it's easy to get lost in the lingo. Which is why we're sharing this handy-dandy guide of typical terms used to describe how meat is raised and finished. And don’t be shy about asking questions when talking to a farmer or rancher. No matter what you choose, there is no right or wrong way to buy local meat.

  • Certified Organic: Organic certification verifies that a farm or ranch complies with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations and standards. Organic livestock standards address many factors including land and livestock management practices, feed, recordkeeping, medication and supplements.

  • Uses Organic Methods or Practices”: There are costs associated with achieving and maintaining organic certification. Some farmers and ranchers will advertise that they “use organic methods” or “follow organic practices” or are “beyond organic” without being certified as the organic certification may not make fiscal sense for their farm.

  • Naturally raised: This is a marketing standard established by the USDA. For producers to market their products as “naturally raised” they must produce livestock that has “been raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (with limited exceptions like disease), and have never been fed animal by-products.”

  • No antibiotics/No hormones: This means the animal has never received either antibiotics or growth hormones.

  • Grass-fed: This label applies to beef. For meat to be labeled as “grass-fed,” cattle must be fed an exclusive diet of grass and forage plants only, no grain or by-products. Producers can choose to have their grass-fed operations certified: the USDA offers a grass-fed certification, along with organizations like the American Grassfed Association (AGA).

  • Grain-finished: This term also applies to beef. It usually means the animal was grass-fed for the majority of its life and then fed grain for the last 60-120 days (more or less, depending on the producer’s choice) to increase fat and protein in the diet, adding weight and intramuscular fat (marbling) to the animal.

  • Pasture-raised (or pastured): This term often applies to hogs and chickens. Hogs and chickens cannot be exclusively “grass-fed”: they are omnivores (unlike cattle which are herbivores). Pasture-raised means the animal spent the majority of their life outdoors, on pasture. It does not mean the animal ate only grass or forages.

  • Free-Range: This term, very similar to “pasture-raised,” denotes a method of farming, where animals, for at least part of the day, are allowed to roam freely outdoors. The amount of time spent outdoors depends on the farm.

  • Cage-Free: Often referring to fowl and eggs, the term cage-free means that the birds are raised uncaged inside barns and allowed perches and nest boxes to lay their eggs. It does not necessarily mean that they are allowed access to the outdoors or that they are not overcrowded. This depends on the farm.

  • Heritage Breed: Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by farmers in the past, before the drastic reduction of breed variety caused by the rise of industrial agriculture. Heritage animals were bred over time to develop traits that made them particularly well-adapted to local environmental conditions. These livestock breeds serve as an important genetic resource. If a heritage breed becomes extinct, its unique genes are lost forever and can’t be used to breed new traits into existing livestock breeds. Therefore, by raising heritage livestock breeds, sustainable farmers not only maintain variety within our livestock populations, they also help to preserve valuable traits within the species so that future breeds can endure harsh conditions. There is no official definition or certification for “heritage” animals, but for a livestock breed to be truly heritage, it must have unique genetic traits and be raised on a sustainable farm.

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Heritage Pork from Sugar Grove Family Farm

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Pastured Poultry from Broad Branch Farm

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Grass-Fed Beef from Triple S Farm

Sources: High Desert Food and Farm Alliance, Oregon State University Extension, Grace Communications Foundation.

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