What Does Pasture-Raised Really Mean?
The test kitchen digs deep into the term during a visit from Vital Farms.
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Since styling and shooting food is part of the editors' job description, they tend to be particular not only about how an ingredient tastes, but also about how it looks. Even something as seemingly simple as eggs are no exception. Not all eggs are created equal, which was especially evident after senior editor Lauryn Tyrell conducted a side-by-side comparison in the test kitchen of different eggs you can get at the grocery store. The one with the most beautiful yolk came from the company Vital Farms, which is now the largest pasture-raised egg purveyor in the U.S. But what does pasture-raised mean, exactly? Vital Farms brand communications director Dan Brooks stopped by the test kitchen to answer that very question, plus share their latest offerings, which include packaged hard-boiled eggs; pasture-raised, grass-fed butter; and most recently, ghee.
First off, pasture-raised doesn't signify anything unless there's some kind of third-party verification. Nothing is stopping egg producers from using the term, as it's not regulated by the USDA. Vital Farms founder Matt O'Hayer worked with international nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care to develop the pasture-raised standards for its respected Certified Humane program. In order to earn this seal, there must be 108 square feet per bird, fields must be rotated, and hens must be outdoors year-round, with the ability to go inside at night to protect themselves from predators. To put that into context, cage-free means one square foot per bird and no access to the outdoors, while free-range goes up to just 20 square feet per bird with limited access to the outdoors. Brooks is quick to point out that the Certified Humane standards are just a baseline for Vital Farms: "All the improvements we've made to our farms and systems are on top of that. It's not the ceiling that we're trying to attain but rather the floor from which we're building everything up."
This is Vital Farms' 12th year supplying pasture-raised eggs. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, the company currently has a network of 154 farms across ten states where the weather is mild enough for year-round access to the outdoors. Most farms in its network have two to three barns of 5,000 birds each, which might sound like a lot if you're not familiar with factory farming-a conventional barn generally houses a whopping 300,000 birds. Each barn under the Vital Farms umbrella sits on approximately 14 acres of land and operates on a hub-and-spoke pasture rotation system, which means when the hens have eaten through one section of grass, the farmer moves them to the next and the next until it's been long enough for the original grass to grow back. "I'm sure Martha's chickens have it better than that," says Brooks, "but for commercial chickens, this is the highest standard you can have."
The response has been tremendous. When Vital Farms started in 2007, pasture-raised eggs accounted for 0.1 percent of the egg market; now they're at almost 3 percent. And it's safe to say the category will only continue to grow: According to a 2017 survey by market-research firm Packaged Facts, 58 percent of consumers say they're more concerned about the treatment of animals raised for food than they were a few years ago. As shoppers demand more transparency, the list of food marketing labels also continues to grow, including misleading ones like all-natural and farm-fresh. While Vital Farms isn't immune to loading their cartons with feel-good phrases, they stand by each one, says Brooks, because "it's an accurate representation of how we farm. There are no terms evocative of a system that doesn't represent how we raise our hens or cows."
As the team sampled Vital Farms' hard-boiled eggs, editor at large Shira Bocar admired the color of the yolk. Brooks attributes it to what their hens are eating: "Think of the proteins and fats they're getting from the insects, and the xanthophyll, chlorophyll, and especially beta-carotene they're getting from the grass." Just as important, a rich, varied diet makes the hens healthier, as does the regular outdoor access, which reduces stress and cortisol levels and allows the birds to socialize. "The basis of everything we do is the humane treatment of farm animals," adds Brooks.
Three years ago, Vital Farms partnered with dairy farmers in Ohio to add butter to its offerings. It's a very different setup from eggs, but the company is similarly keeping herds small in comparison to commercial operations and making sure the cows are actually grass-fed. And while there are currently no ratified standards for pasture-raised dairy, that's something the company is hoping to change. The newly-released ghee is made from the same dairy as the pasture-raised butter and also impressed the test-kitchen team. While the editors usually break out a jar when cooking their favorite Indian dishes, from butter chicken to barfi, ghee is just as versatile as butter, if not more so, because of its high smoke point. Brooks encouraged the team to enjoy it straight out of the jar-they did not need to be told twice. "Sometimes ghee can be oily or seem off or rancid, but this is delicious," said Lauryn.