Organic Certification Standards for Poultry: An Insider’s Look
Part 10: Last week, our extended look at the history of organic agriculture delved into the challenges and contradictions of livestock certification by examining the evolution of the standards for organic dairy production. How can livestock standards simultaneously accommodate the animals’ natural behavior, afford farmers the opportunity to operate at an economically rewarding scale and still satisfy consumers’ price-sensitive demand for production systems that are genuine alternatives to conventional practice?
The history of certified dairy production reveals that the overlap in these three objectives can be quite limited, and that the economic pressure to increase the scale of production without disenchanting consumers is continuous. As a consequence, cartons of organic milk sold by side on the grocery shelf can originate from certified dairies of 50, 500 and 5,000 cows with nothing in the USDA standards or organic seal to enable consumers to differentiate between them.
This week, we’re undertaking a similar investigation into the nuances and ambiguities within the certification standards for organic poultry, especially chicken. What overlap exists in organic certification between the natural behavior of chickens, the farmer’s ability to earn a living and consumers’ expectations that the birds won’t be cruelly confined, fed a compromised diet and medically mistreated?
While not as economically significant as organic dairy during the heyday of private standards, sales of organic poultry have grown steadily under the federal certification program. The latest 2011 USDA Certified Organic Production survey (PDF) pegs the organic poultry market at $412 million ($275 million for eggs, $115 million for broilers (meat birds) and $22 million for turkeys) while placing sales of organic milk at $763 million. Raising this many organic chickens also supports the premium prices organic grain farmers receive for feed corn and soybeans which consistently run roughly twice the price of the conventional market.
To fully appreciate organic certification standards for chickens, it’s important to go back to the beginning of the story — way back, in fact. Modern chicken breeds are descended from wild jungle fowl first domesticated thousands of years ago in Southern Asia. While considerably calmer than their ancestors — this happens to all of us living in captivity — contemporary chickens retain the beak, claws and appetite for flesh of an avian predator. Chickens experience no dilemma whatsoever in being omnivores and will consume insects, small mammals and reptiles and occasionally each other to satisfy their nutritional demands.
The irony behind all those egg cartons – certified and conventional alike – stating that “chickens fed a vegetarian diet” is that doing so violates the fundamental precept of organic agriculture, to adhere to Nature’s model. Interestingly, with their dietary and sanitary requirements satisfactorily addressed, these once mighty and proud loners of the jungle are comfortable living in exceedingly close quarters – perhaps more commentary on our own evolution.
Where chickens were once raised as barnyard scavengers, the advent of industrialized production required farmers to adopt a more systematic approach by supplementing the birds’ grain-based feed with animal protein. Never picky eaters, commercially raised chickens thrived on supplements including meat and bone scraps, dairy whey, and fish and crab meal. More recently, synthetic protein supplements have replaced animal-derived sources, thereby completing mankind’s transformation of the wild jungle fowl from an omnivorous predator to a captive vegetarian.
In one of the more remarkable weak links in USDA organic certification, there is a continuing allowance for one such supplement – synthetic methionine – which is the first limiting amino acid for poultry and cannot be easily supplied in the absence of animal protein in the diet.
For more than a decade, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) – the sanctioned guardian of organic integrity– has tried and failed to find an acceptable natural alternative to synthetic methionine. At the insistence of public comment on its draft regulations, the USDA organic standards prohibit feeding any poultry or mammalian by-products to livestock, so that option remains legally foreclosed. The NOSB has capped the limit of synthetic methionine and explored the feasibility of novel replacements from special breeds of high methionine corn to microbial brews to worms, which the birds relish but impart an off-taste to the eggs and meat.
The second most challenging and ultimately compromising component of the organic poultry standards has been the requirements for appropriate housing conditions, specifically the space allocated per bird and the condition in which that space is maintained. Just as the “access to pasture” provision for ruminants was once manipulated to sanction organic mega-dairies, the even more ambiguous “access to the outdoors” (containing no vegetative cover or feed component) 2002 USDA standard for poultry led to virtually continuous confinement in houses containing upwards of certified 80,000 birds.
The USDA improved this standard slightly in 2010 by requiring outdoor chicken yards to have grass cover and the NOSB has gone further by recommending that poultry flocks must be conditioned to venture outdoors from an early age (talk about herding cats!). However, the NOSB recommendation is not enforceable until USDA issues corresponding regulations, and the Department has shown no interest in modifying the status quo as it did when upgrading the pasture standard. Bearing in mind that existing layer and broiler standards also permit starting flocks with conventionally raised chicks and removing a portion of the bird’s beak to suppress aggressive behavior, does organic poultry seem a little too close to conventional production for comfort?
Beyond the intricacies of the production standards themselves, the story of organic poultry certification also includes one of the more fascinating sagas in the relationship between the organic community, the agribusiness establishment and the federal government. The organic community fought hard to include a requirement in the USDA standards implemented in 2002 that all agricultural ingredients in livestock feed must be organically produced. This left room for non-agricultural ingredients from natural (salt licks) or synthetic (methionine) sources, but set the highest bar in the world for the pasture, forages and grains comprising the core of the livestock diet.
This requirement was specifically intended to protect the integrity of the organic dairy market where the leading brands had already committed themselves to such a standard, but it also applied to the nascent world of certified poultry, which was much more the Wild West in terms of who played the game and the rules they followed.
One such player was Fieldale Farms of Baldwin, GA which was among the largest conventional broiler producers in the United States and had developed a modest market in organic chicken breasts during the final days of private certification standards. Fieldale had capitalized on the flexibility of the private standards system by feeding its broilers conventional feed grains, thereby significantly cutting its costs and price point on the shelf. Fieldale diligently opposed including the comprehensive requirement for organic agricultural feed ingredients in the federal standards (I was the USDA staffer they plead their case to) and claimed that short supplies and exorbitant prices would preclude them from ever complying with it. I explained to the Fieldale representatives that, with the organic community having crossed this bridge and the USDA on board with the resulting consensus, there would be no alternative to compliance.
This anecdote illustrates why my career in Washington never progressed very far, as Fieldale and their home U.S. Representative Nathan Deal had no trouble identifying and implementing an alternative which never occurred to me. Representative Deal attached a rider to the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill waiving the comprehensive organic feed requirement unless USDA produced a report documenting that sufficient organic supply existed to sustain current levels of production at no more than twice the price of the conventional alternatives. The structure of the rider allowed certified producers including Fieldale to switch to conventional feed until and unless that report appeared. In the dark throughout the process, the organic community awoke to realize its worst fear when accepting federal oversight of organic certification: the corporate sharks and their political enablers weren’t playing nice.
In a surprise happy ending, a united and vociferous organic community marshaled a massive public response that led both houses of Congress to overturn the rider within months. The organic community won the argument both on the merits of the case – the organic feed requirement was emblematic of the high but attainable standards everyone wanted in the federal program and the process – no politician wants to stand up publicly for what they will do behind closed doors. When asked by the press how the Deal rider found its way into the Appropriations bill, the spokesman for House Speaker Hastert implied that it remained a mystery! Fieldale Farm went on to replace its organic line with products marketed as all-vegetarian-feed, no-antibiotic and certified humane treatment. Nathan Deal went on to be elected Governor of Georgia in 2010.
In one sense, the Fieldale Farm episode confirmed the political maturation of the organic movement much as its similarly successful response to the USDA’s first proposed organic standards (see U.S. Adopts National Organic Standards: A Victory for All, but…) had announced its arrival. The organic community proved that it could flex its muscle in Washington, but in overturning the rider, had it achieved anything more than restoring the status quo standard? Would the organic community prove capable of actually advancing its interests by accessing the power and resources on Capitol Hill and USDA headquarters to which its surging growth and popularity entitled it?
In next week’s concluding installment of this series, we will examine the performance, progress and ultimate prospects for organic farming in the future of American agriculture.
To read other posts from this 11-part organic history series
Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While working for the USDA National Organic Program between 1999 and 2002 Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production. He spent two more years with the USDA Marketing Services Branch working to develop and promote farmers markets. Mark also worked for the NOP in 2010. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.