Key Terms
One thing that the farmers and other producers who sell their products through West Michigan Co-op have in common is that they are all local. But besides that, their practices may vary. What follows are some terms and their definitions to keep in mind and help you make informed decisions as you shop (on the Co-op website and elsewhere).

Sustainable vs. Industrial Food and Agriculture
Sustainable. A product can be considered sustainable if its production enables the resources from which it was made to continue to be available for future generations. A sustainable product can thus be created repeatedly without generating negative environmental effects through the use of massive amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the creation of waste products that accumulate as pollution. Many different agricultural techniques can be utilized to help make food production more sustainable.

Industrial. A local, sustainable food system is an alternative to the majority of modern agriculture, which is huge in scale, global in nature, highly mechanized and oriented toward processing. In total, this approach tends to be destructive to natural systems and soil ecology and utilizes vast quantities of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and petroleum resources while diminishing the nutrient quality of food in trade for shelf life. Industrial agriculture of this sort also favors low production costs over humane treatment of workers and animals while disconnecting communities and the individual from the place and the face behind their food.

Industrial agriculture is typified by large, corporate animal farms or CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). These operations are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as having more than 1,000 beef cattle, 2,500 hogs or 100,000 broiler hens. To cut costs and raise production levels, CAFO owners cram thousands of animals in cages under one roof and ignore basic needs like access to fresh air and exercise. To stave off disease and encourage growth, they feed the animals huge amounts of antibiotics. These modern methods have huge costs not factored into the cheap price of food at stores and restaurants. They include health, environmental and economic problems such as antibiotic resistance, chronic respiratory disease, deadly bacterial outbreaks, massive fish kills, water and air pollution, failed family farms and dying rural economies.

This holistic method of agriculture is certified by a third-party agency and is based on the philosophy that all aspects of the farm should be treated as an interrelated whole that includes not only living nature but also the non-living world and gravitational and celestial forces. Having emerged as the first non-chemical agricultural movement approximately 20 years before the development of 'organic' agriculture, biodynamics has now spread throughout the world. Biodynamic farmers work in harmony with nature and use a variety of techniques, such as crop rotation and on-farm composting, to foster a sustainable and productive environment. Visit the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (hyperlink = for more information.

These terms refers to the same basic theoretical approach to raising animals: the animals have been allowed to roam outdoors on pasture for the duration of their lives to get exercise, sunshine and eat grass and forage for bugs and other food necessary for a healthy diet. Generally speaking, pastured refers to poultry, free-range and cage-free refers to eggs, and grass-fed refers to beef.

Free Range
'Free Range' or 'Free Roaming' means the animal had some access to the outdoors each day. However, it doesn't guarantee the animal spent any time outside. As long as a door to the outdoors is left open for a period of time, the animal is considered 'Free Range.' Note: the USDA has defined this term for chickens raised for consumption but no standards have been set for egg-laying chickens or other animals. (If you are looking to buy eggs, poultry or meat raised outdoors, look for 'Pastured' or 'Pasture-raised.')

Cage Free
Birds are raised without cages. This doesn't specify if the birds were raised outdoors on pasture, if they had access to outside, or if they were raised indoors in overcrowded conditions. (If you're looking to buy eggs, poultry or meat raised outdoors, look for 'Pastured' or 'Pasture-raised.')

Pastured or Pasture-Raised
This indicates the animal was raised on a pasture and ate grasses and food found in a pasture, rather than being fattened on grain in a feedlot or barn. Pasturing livestock and poultry is a traditional farming technique that allows animals to be raised in a humane, ecologically sustainable manner. Note: a chicken or pig can be pastured, but they aren't solely grass fed; in most cases, they must eat grains, too.
This means the animals only eat grass and nothing else, and it pertains to cattle, sheep and goats (not poultry or pigs). Although it should imply that animals were allowed to graze naturally while roaming the pasture, it is possible the animals weren't able to roam but were simply given grasses and silage to eat. Regardless, grass-fed meats should be free of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, grain and animal by-products.

The animal was raised on a diet of grain. At its best, this is a mixture of corn and soybeans and vitamins that is good quality feed, but when farmers and feed suppliers cut corners, these mixes are supplemented with animal byproducts and miscellaneous matter such as cement dust and/or euthanized cats and dogs. Since mad cow disease is thought to be transmitted through animal byproducts added to cattle feed, cows raised on a strictly vegetarian diet are preferred by many consumers. Note: Cattle are ruminants and eat grass; they cannot digest grains properly and can become sick if fed a diet of only grain.

Although large-scale, confined grain feedlots enable industrial meat producers to fatten their animals quickly, they also foster disease within the cattle population, creating the need for antibiotics and increasing the risk of E. Coli contamination. Grain-fed animals tend to be raised on factory farms and should be avoided.

Grain Finished
Cattle that are fed only grain before slaughter. Some producers raise their animals on pasture but then feed them grain for a certain amount of time before slaughter. Grain makes the meat fattier and creates the taste most people are currently accustomed to.

Grass Fed/Grain Supplemented
Cattle that is raised on pasture and eat grasses. At a certain point, grains are slowly introduced into the diet in a controlled amount, along with the grasses. By controlling the amount of grain, the animals do not become sick and do not develop digestion problems that solely grain-fed cattle can encounter. They are also not forced to eat the grain.

Pesticide Free
Farmers who raise crops or animals without chemical control of pests (to control weeds, control crop eating insects or to control flies or other animal pests) but may use chemical fertilizers (as opposed to compost or other natural unrefined sources) in pastures, field crops or their fruit or vegetable production.

Pesticide and Chemical Fertilizer Free
No petroleum based synthetic chemicals are used on this farm - no petroleum based synthetic pesticides nor any industrial chemical fertilizers are used on this farm. Typically these farms make a concerted effort to build healthy soil ecosystems and believe petroleum pesticides are harmful to people and their farm.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
A strategy of weed and insect pest management that uses as much information as possible to most effectively apply the least amount of pesticides to control pests.

Antibiotic/Hormone Free
Antibiotic/Hormone Free generally refers to livestock:
  • No Antibiotics Administered. No antibiotics were administered to the animal during its lifetime. If an animal becomes sick, it is taken out of the herd and treated but not sold.
  • No Hormones Administered or No Added Hormones. Animals were raised without added growth hormones. (By law, hogs and poultry cannot be given any hormones.)
  • Raised Without the Routine Use of Antibiotics. Antibiotics were not given to the animal to promote growth or to prevent disease, but may have been administered if the animal became ill. Often, antibiotics are added to animal feed at low amounts ever since it was discovered in the mid-1990s that they increase the rate of animal growth. However, this is a risky use of antibiotics as it causes them to lose their effectiveness and increases the chance of their ending up in our water supply and our food.
  • rBGH-Free or rBST-Free. rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is a genetically engineered hormone that is injected into dairy cows to artificially increase their milk production. The hormone has not been properly tested for safety. Milk labeled 'rBGH-Free' is produced by dairy cows that never received injections of this hormone. Organic milk is rBGH free. (rBST stands for recombinant bovine somatotropin.)

Food Alliance Certified
A certification program that focuses on three fixed standards:
  1. No genetically modified organisms
  2. No hormones or feed additive antibiotics
  3. Continuous improvement. There are four areas of 'continuous improvement':
    • Reduce pesticide usage
    • Soil and water conservation
    • Safe and fair working conditions and
    • Wildlife habitat conservation.
For more information, visit

In order to be labeled 'organic,' a product, its producer, and the farmer must meet the USDA's organic standards and must be certified by a USDA-approved food-certifying agency. Organic foods cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage sludge, cannot be genetically modified, and cannot be irradiated. Organic meat and poultry must be fed only organically-grown feed (without any animal byproducts) and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics. Furthermore, the animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture (which doesn't mean they actually have to go outdoors and graze on pasture to be considered organic. Buyer Beware: only USDA certified-organic foods can use the word 'organic' in the product name, but organic ingredients can be listed on the packaging that aren't entirely organic (i.e., 'made with organic flour'). Furthermore, if a company is certified as an organic producer, it can use the word 'organic' in its company name, which can appear on all of its products - even those that aren't certified organic. So, it's very important to look for the USDA 'Certified Organic' seal when purchasing organic products.
  • USDA Certified-Organic. In order to bear the USDA 'Certified Organic' seal, a product must contain 95-100% organic ingredients. Products that contain 100 % organic ingredients can be labeled '100 percent organic.' Products that contain more than 70 percent, but less than 94 percent organic ingredients can be labeled 'Made with Organic Ingredients,' but cannot use the USDA 'Certified- Organic' seal.
  • Transitional Organic. This isn't a certified label, but it indicates the farmer is in the three-year transition process to certified organic farming. Farmers must use and document practices on their farm for three years before they can be certified organic.
Source: Sustainable Table (
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