Organic vs. Pastured Poultry: Why Organic is Not Enough
We started Pasture Brothers because we felt the need for more foods like chicken raised locally and in a sustainable, transparent, and ethical way. The more we learned about existing food labels, even Certified Organic, the more we realized how they did not mean what we had thought.
So what is available today? For most of us, its the pre-packaged goods we find on local grocery store shelves. They seem to provide us with options.
The choice we are generally most familiar facing comes down to conventional vs. organic. With chicken of course we see others like "Cage Free" and "Free Range," but for the purposes of this article we will just focus on organic because it is often touted as the gold standard in food quality.
Although we believe organic chicken is an improvement over conventional, it is NOT an acceptable standard from the standpoint of animal welfare, environmental impact, or human nutrition.
The truth is, a chicken can be fed 100% organic feed in a confinement house, without fresh air and sunshine, without access to fresh grass, trucked for hours to a processing plant where they are mechanically electrocuted, and labeled “Certified Organic.”
Knowing this, we clearly need a more comprehensive standard to meet consumer expectations. Another way to think of it: if we ate an all organic diet but never left the couch, how healthy could we expect to be?
Let's dive into some of the details before we discuss our take on the solution.
Organic standards require all chicken feed be organically produced. Nothing wrong with that. However, animal by-products are prohibited (with the exception of fishmeal). Chickens are natural omnivores. The organic standards essentially force the birds into vegetarianism. This leads to the need for synthetic supplementation of essential amino acids like methionine. Not ideal.
No drugs or hormones are allowed "to promote growth." However, there is a National List of "natural medications" and specific "synthetic medications" maintained by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The List features specific drugs that are allowed. These drugs are administered to organic chickens when its deemed necessary. Its impossible to say how often this is taking place. Organic producers certainly can't make the claim of "drug free."
Organic living standards are quite ambiguous, which leads to some glaring abuse. Producers are expected to accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight. Although it sounds good, the wording leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
In reality, most organic chickens live in mass scale confinement much like they would conventionally. Both organic and conventional chicken houses are so crowded that the practice of beak trimming and debeaking is routinely carried out to prevent the birds from cannibalizing each other. Further, ammonia levels can quickly build up in overcrowded chicken houses, a welfare issue for the birds and humans who manage them. Organic standards do not require ongoing ammonia level testing, which is an unnecessary risk to all involved.
An outdoor area does exist in organic chicken houses, its just rarely used. The birds are confined in such large numbers that they do not have the ability to freely walk the entire floor. Instead they tend to gather in groups that stay in one area. A negligible amount of birds ever go outside, and even then, there are no standards for vegetative cover. There is hardly anything natural about this environment.
Many large-scale organic producers resist allowing their birds outside at all, citing concerns about avian influenza. This supposed threat has allowed the producers to keep their flocks in continuous confinement, even though there is no record of any well-managed pastured poultry flocks, who are outside 100% of the time, contracting the disease. If a flock were to be infected, there is evidence that the virus is susceptible to heat and sunlight. Lower stocking density also would lessen the viral load. But neither of these facts are taken into consideration by organic production standards today, so the living conditions of organic chickens continue to be that of indoor confinement and stressful overcrowding.
There is no consideration of outdoor stocking densities or pasture rotation in organic standards. The organic standards therefore run the risk of denuded outdoor paddocks where the few birds that get outside may graze due to waste build up and other factors. In short, any soil that may have existed becomes quickly degraded. This fosters an environment highly susceptible to the spread of parasites and diseases that can make flocks reliant on antibiotics for survival.
The Pastured Poultry Solution:
The organic standards clearly fall short of consumer expectations. This is little public awareness of the many inhumane, unnatural and unsustainable practices inherent to the organic system. In contrast, the pastured poultry model is sustainable by design.
Pastured poultry is embodied by a few core tenets: (1) open-floored, portable outdoor buildings (2) fresh forage (3) daily movement to fresh pasture. The birds are ensured appropriate space / stocking density to ensure the health and natural behavior can be expressed. Ammonia exposure is eliminated by the daily movement. A nutritionally balanced feed appropriate to the species and age of the flock is provided. At the same time, soil health is improved due to the naturally symbiotic relationship between the birds and the land. Pastured poultry practitioners have clearly demonstrated significant increases in organic matter content and water retention on their pastures thanks to these methods.
We have a long way to go before providing animals fresh air and sunlight every day becomes the norm instead of the exception. We are confident that as light is shed on the realities of today's standards the public will continue pressing their producers to make the necessary changes for a sustainable food supply.
Perhaps the USDA may come out with a new "pasture-raised" label that adheres to the model we outlined above. Regardless, the more public awareness is created around these issues, the more likely we are to see changes that benefit the health of the entire system sooner than rather than later. The power is in our hands.
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USDA Guidelines for Organic Certification of Poultry: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Poultry%20-%20Guidelines.pdf
American Pastured Poultry Producers Association Comments on National Organic Program: https://apppa.org/news/5020618
Pastured Poultry: The Polyface Farm Model: https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/farm-ranch/pastured-poultry-the-polyface-farm-model/