Understanding Food Terms - What Does "Heritage" Mean?

Not too long ago, we put up an article about what exactly "heirloom" meant when you see it on a menu or in reference to any produce you purchase. While that term applies to fruits and vegetables, there is also a sister term that you may have seen before but in reference to meat. This would be "heritage" and points to livestock and poultry that follow very similar guidelines to what it means for produce to be "heirloom." If you are looking at a menu one day or browsing the meat section of your grocery store and you see "heritage" in front of the name of the type of meat, you can be assured that it is from a breed from pre-feed-lot days. When I see "heritage," I think about animals being raised the ways most ideal. There are several farms these days that have cropped up to try and bring back these breeds so let's take a look at specifically why this is important and "what does 'heritage' mean anyway?"

It is very possible that you have actually never heard the term "heritage" before because it is not as prolific and seemingly ubiquitous as 'heirloom' is. Like the latter term, it was complicated due to World War II which brought on a human population burst and an proportionally huge increase in demand for food. The new generations needed to sustain themselves, and animals already being bred for meat production were not responding well to the intensity of this want.

American farms at the time were widely varied when it came to breeds, and each of these types thrived in their specific environments. They were set in places where they could grow the best and as naturally as possible which, of course, led to more flavorful and better textured meats. Unfortunately, these were not fit for the factory farming practices that expanded in reaction to populations skyrocketing - few survived the industrial conditions. In an artificial "natural selection" process, farms bred together the particular breeds that survived the best and focused on getting those up to rapid production numbers. Natural instincts and body shape/composition of these animals went out the window once they were manipulated thus. The heritage breeds became endangered out of lack of demand; they were not "efficient" products.

Industrial Breeds: Pros and Cons
Is it really just businesses that we should be blaming for factory farming? They were reacting to a need brought about by a population boom. The industrial breeds were the ones that could survive the rigorous processes necessary to meet demand. People thus might say that there are great advantages to them such as:
  • efficient production rate
  • mass availability
  • consistency/quality control
  • low land resources
  • fast growth rate
while others might say that there are great disadvantages such as:
  • little biodiversity, making them prone to diseases/viruses (hence antibiotic use)
  • possible need for artificial insemination to reproduce
  • generic taste/texture
  • hormone use (some)

Heritage Breeds: Pros and Cons
These livestock breeds that were pre-industrial farming are essentially nearly endangered. Demand is what governs production so when the heritage breeds are not most suited for such, they are forgotten.  Many would say that that is a pity because there are advantages to them such as:
  • longer life span
  • well-suited for free-range and outdoor pasture set-ups
  • better biodiversity
  • reproduction without artificial insemination
  • less excess fat, tighter muscular grain, and apparently superior flavor
  • ubiquity as all of these animals can be heritage - turkey, pork, sheep, beef, bison, and chicken
while others might say that there are disadvantages such as:
  • the need for pasture and land to handle the volume consumed by livestock
  • slower growth rate
  • resources needed to accommodate longer lives
Types of Heritage Breeds

  • TURKEY: Auburn, Buff, Black, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, Standard Bronze, and Midget White
  • BEEF: Red Poll, Dexter
  • CHICKEN: Barred Plymouth Rock, Dark Cornish
  • PORK: Berkshire, Tamworth, Red Wattle, Duroc, Gloucester Old Spot/Iron Age Pig, Yorkshire, Large Black 

There have been several organizations attempting to bring back heritage livestock into the general public's lives. A notorious advocate is Heritage Foods USA, formed in 2001 as the sales and marketing arm of Slow Food USA and which became independent in 2004 to sell heritage breeds only to top tiered restaurants and consumers. There is also a subset effort by the same group called "No Goat Left Behind" which made the public more comfortable with preparing/cooking this more "exotic" meat. Heritage Foods USA is now partnered with NY and Vermont family farms to sell hundreds of goats to restaurants and home consumers throughout the month of October. It looks like heritage is trying to make a comeback!

Photography and research by Duc Duong.