This weekend Kelly and I and our friend Dale attended the massive Natural Products Expo West, a convention where grocery and health food stores go to find the latest quinoa chip. While the vast majority of exhibitors are peddling highly processed vegetarian junk food, in recent years I’ve spotted a positive trend: pasture raised eggs and meat.
Having witnessed agricultural fraud first hand and even collusion from mainstream journalists (wish I could tell that story, but Root Simple would need an investigative division and lawyers), I’ve come to view animal husbandry claims with suspicion. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at the standards for pasture raised laying hens.
As usual, food marketing claims are confusing and often misleading. In fairness, assessing a farm’s “humaneness” isn’t a simple question and there’s no oversight from the government. The USDA does not have a pasture raised designation. Pasture certification is done by third party organizations. Thankfully the Animal Welfare Institute has a guide to animal welfare claims.
I thought I’d take a closer look at the designation I’ve seen the most, Certified Humane. One important thing to note is that a company can have the Certified Humane designation and not raise poultry on pasture. That said, the non-profit that adjudicates the Certified Humane label has pasture standards. Here’s an excerpt from those standards relating to exterior access for laying hens on pasture:
R 1: Pasture area
a. Must consist mainly of living vegetation. Coarse grit must be available to aid digestion of vegetation.
b. The pasture must be designed and actively managed to:
1. Encourage birds outside, away from the popholes, and to use the area fully;
2. Prevent and/or minimize heavily degraded, muddy/sodden, or worn areas;
3. Minimize any build-up of agents (e.g., parasites, bacteria, viruses) that may cause disease;
4. Prevent hens from coming into contact with any toxic substances.
c. The minimum outdoor space requirement is 2.5 acres (1 hectare)/1000 birds. Land used for cropping (except grass or hay) is not accepted as part of the Pasture Raised space allowance and must be excluded from space calculations.
d. The maximum distance that a hen has to walk from the perimeter fence of the pasture to the nearest door into a fixed or mobile house must be no more than 400 yards (366 m).
e. The pasture must be rotated periodically to prevent the land from becoming contaminated and or denuded, and to allow it to recover from use. A written rotational grazing plan must be in place. The written rotational grazing plan must be submitted with the application.
f. Water temperature must not be less than 50° F (10 C) or greater than 100° F (38 C).
g. Birds must be outdoors 12 months per year, every day for a minimum of 6 hours per day. In an emergency, the hens may be confined in fixed or mobile housing 24 hours per day for no more than 14 consecutive days.
h. Shade, cover and dust bathing areas
1. There must be sufficient well-drained, shaded areas for hens to rest outdoors without crowding together.
2. Cover, such as shrubs, trees or artificial structures, must be distributed throughout the pasture to reduce the fear reactions of hens to overhead predators and to encourage use of the pasture.
3. The pasture area must include patches with loose substrate suitable for dust bathing.
These standards seem reasonable to me though there are other things to consider such as de-beaking. Personally, I feel good about buying pasture raised eggs with the Certified Humane designation. But I wish that the USDA would step in and clear up the confusing and misleading egg labels such as “cage free,” and “free range.” as well as putting together a standard for “pasture raised.” I’m not holding my breath. On the positive side, we vote with our food dollars and those votes are beginning to be counted. Unfortunately, there’s going to be a few years of wading through the marketing manure and the current anti-regulation political climate.