The words surrounding our food have increasing been harder to navigate.
"heirloom" "hybrid" "open-pollinated" "heritage" "GMO-free" "free-range" "grass-fed" "pasture-raised" "cage-free" "grain-fed" "free-run" "antibiotic free" "vegetarian-fed" "cruelty-free" "organic" "certified humane"
It's often a little (sometimes a lot) confusing and while the internet is full of information it often ends up being a jumbled mess of opinions.
When it comes to produce (fruits, vegetables, nuts) it's fairly (kinda-sorta) straight forward, at least compared to meat products. I did a post on that a while ago, Talking About Seeds.
What about meat?
(Here is where I would insert a page-break so you could click on a link to read the rest of the post, but I can't figure out how to on SquareSpace. If anyone knows how, please email me!)
I admit, I have a problem with A&W right now and their "vegetarian-fed, no animal by-products" chicken eggs. Chickens are omnivores! They NEED protein to create all those eggs. There is only one plant (that I know of) that could supply them with enough protein to continually pump out eggs and keep those chickens "healthy".
Since they're not marketing their eggs as "GMO-Free" that means it's genetically-engineered soy, plus many scientists believe that large amounts of soy can possibility disrupt the body's normal function.
And they're in cages, definitely not allowed outside as then those chickens would be eating bugs and whatever small rodent wandered close enough and would no longer be "vegetarians".
Also, now an avenue to use all the parts of industrial meat that can't be sold for human consumption has been cut-off. Those chickens would gladly eat all the cow and pig parts you don't want too. (I'm sure that all the off-cuts are put to good use feeding all the non-vegetarian chickens.)
Yes, I'm sure they get other grains with their soy (corn, wheat, maybe even a bit of alfalfa so the yolks aren't totally colourless) but if YOU were a vegetarian and all you ate was soy bean products and cereal grains (with maybe a garnish of kale), would you be healthy?
Free-Range. Grass-Fed. Pasture-Raised. Cage-Free. Free-Run.
Some of these describe living conditions, some are feed choices, one is both.
I would love to go through all of these in detail, but instead I'm going to concentrate on one in-particular...
It's exactly what you think it means. The animals were raised in such a way that they always had grass under their feet. Constant access to grass means they whatever other foods were offered to them they could always choose to eat grass and whatever they dug up in the soil (in the case of pigs and chickens).
Often the animals are moved into new paddocks (permanent fencing) for rotational grazing (common for larger livestock like cattle or pigs), or they have portable shelters+fencing that is moved around a larger pasture (common with smaller livestock like chickens, ducks, geese, quail, rabbits). "All-In-One" units are known as "tractors".
But even meat with a "Pasture-Raised" label on it needs clarification. Yes, they get constant access to grass, but what other foods does the farmer offer them?
That's why creating a personal connection with your farmer is vital. Talk to farmers! Go on farm tours. Ask questions.
"Why aren't you/Why are you certified organic?"
"I saw on your website your family were part of the industrial farming system. What made you choose a different farming model?"
"Do your cows ever get grain?" "Why/why not?"
"Why did you choose to/choose not to use gestation crates with your sows?" (female pigs)
"I see your chickens are in movable shelters. What feed do they get in addition to grass + bugs?"
"Animal welfare is important to me. If an animal is sick and needs medicine, what do you do?"
That last one is a big one. And again, I'm going to pick on A&W and their no antibiotic beef. Alberta Beef Producers recently put out an educational brochure. According to them, all beef in the Canadian market is antibiotic free.
Many of the farmers (that I've talked to) that rely on direct-sales for their farm income often will remove the animal that needs medicine from their customers food supply. That animal, once treated and gone through the necessary withdrawal time, will go to feed the farmers family, sold at auction into the industrial food chain, sold for dog/cat food, or kept for breeding.
Every farm makes different choices depending on their personal ethics. You, as a consumer, now have the choice of developing relationships with the farms who's ethnics match or compliment your own. 30 years ago developing those sort of relationships with the people who grew your food was nearly impossible. More than ever, you have a choice about where to spend your food dollars.
No matter what label a farmer or corporation is using to describe their product, you as the consumer have a right to know why. If they'll can't or don't want to answer, well, I think that already answers it....