Squawking About Organic Chicken

August 7th, 2017

[This article was previously published in the summer issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Marie Burcham, JD, Farm and Food Policy Analyst
at The Cornucopia Institute

Source: Adobe Stock

During the presidential campaign of 1928, a circular published by the Republican Party claimed that if Herbert Hoover won there would be “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Hoover saw chicken as a luxury food that he wanted to make accessible to every American. President Hoover got his wish; chicken is now the most consumed meat in the United States.

Per capita consumption of chicken and turkey has increased steadily since 1965. Chicken is currently the most widely available organic meat.

Unfortunately for shoppers who want to purchase healthy and ethical organic chicken, choosing a brand is complicated.

Industrial management practices from conventional agriculture are well integrated into the organic poultry industry. By volume, the majority of organic chicken comes from industrial-scale operations.

Lax regulatory oversight by the USDA, loopholes, and loose interpretations of the standards are often employed by these producers.

The main characteristics of these loopholes are the lack of outdoor access, overcrowding, and the inability of birds to perform natural behaviors. These birds live short lives—usually only four to six weeks—during which, they are restricted from behaviors like foraging, bathing, and socializing.

Breeds in these industrial operations are selected for quick weight gain, rather than health and vitality. Because of the fast growth, the birds may only see the outdoors for a few days to a week, if that.

This outdoor access is usually token at best: plots of bare dirt that do not offer enough space for all the chickens in the barn to be outside. These chickens have no genuine space to forage for vegetation and insects, as would be natural for them.

All organic livestock, including meat birds, must have access to the outdoors, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean drinking water, shade, and direct sunlight—all suitable for the animal’s “stage of life, climate, and environment.”

Cornucopia is working on enforcement in these areas. In the meantime, even in an industrial setting, all feed must be certified organic, which means a lower pesticide load in the final product.

However, feed sourcing is also a concern for poultry. Some poultry brands feed their birds imported grains, which may be fraudulent under the organic label. For example, Purdue, an industrial producer of organic chicken, is a major importer of dubious grain.

In response to this disregard for the tenets of true, ethical organic livestock production, there is growing momentum among both producers and consumers to push for something better.

Within the organic label, there are producers dedicated to giving their birds true outdoor access. Among the best of these producers are farmers who rotate their meat birds on pasture or silvopasture (the practice of combining forestry and grazing in a mutually beneficial way), giving them legitimate access to the outdoors, a varied diet, and the ability to perform their natural behaviors.

Chickens are omnivores. Their natural diet includes a wide variety of tender greens, insects and other invertebrates, seeds, grains, and sometimes even small vertebrates.

Big agribusiness restricts this natural diet down to primarily grains and legumes (i.e., soy) and supplements nutrients in which the birds are deficient due to their limited diet. A pastured operation, however, gives the birds access to their natural food and encourages foraging behaviors.

Birds raised on pasture are usually healthier, and the final product is more flavorful and nutritious. Advanced welfare for the birds also means they are less prone to the diseases and behavioral issues common in factory operations.

Cornucopia continues to stay informed about the evolving organic meat bird industry and will be working on these issues in the future.

In the meantime, consumers can benefit from asking questions at their groceries, markets, and farms,and by choosing to support pasture-raised, organically fed poultry for themselves and their families.

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