I remember it like it was yesterday. Tanner and I made the decision to start eating healthier and more consciously. We not only wanted to get our own health in check, but felt like if we are going to continue to eat meat, we wanted to make sure the animals were treated right. It was three fold - our health, their health, and planet health.
So our first thought.. (before we started our farm) was "Okay.. Let's start buying organic meat from the grocery store" - Que a multiple week deep-dive into the way the USDA regulates the organic label.
The regulations are a bit blurry.. but what we learned is that most organic chicken is raised very similar to conventional chicken. Let's break it down..
Must be fed organic feed - okay, well that is good. We know organic chicken isn't getting fed crops that were sprayed with glyphosate.
This is where it gets a little confusing..
The chickens must have "access" to outdoors - but this doesn't mean they go outdoors. Cutting a hole in the side of a chicken barn (that holds 60,000 birds) with a screened-in porch can count as "access" to outdoors. They do not have to be raised on pasture, they can still be raised in confinement, with less than 1 square foot per bird. They don't have to see the sun, or step foot on the soil.
"Wait I thought organic meat chickens are free range?"
Technically yes, but how is it defined?
"The definition of “free range” varies across continents. In the United States, there’s no upper limit on how many chickens you can cram into a free-range system: as long as you’ve given them access to some portion of the outdoors, you’re good to go. At the other end of the spectrum, each bird in the United Kingdom is guaranteed 40 square feet to strut its stuff. It is prohibited to call a British hen “free range” if it has been raised with more than 2,500 birds per hectare (a hectare is a little less than two-and-a-half acres)." (source below)
So is it important to you that your chicken is raised mimicking nature - outdoors in the sun on fresh pasture? - If so, organic doesn't guarantee this.
The Drug Debacle
Is organic chicken given drugs? Well, maybe. The regulations state organic chicken can not be given antibiotics starting after the second day of life. The chick (while still in the egg) and on its first day of life can have antibiotics and still be labeled "organic". They cannot be giving antibiotics after that. The typical chicken lifespan for a meat bird is 6 - 8 weeks.
Recently, the USDA made an effort to "level the playing field" when it comes to the animal welfare side of the organic standard. Organic chicken and eggs have essentially two sides of the spectrum in the United States - pasture based small farms, and giant corporations raising birds in barns with "access to the outdoors" that meet loosely defined standards. The proposed rule sought to guarantee chickens raised in the program a minimum of 1 square foot of space per bird when they're outdoors. It would've also fully defined what "access to the outdoors" means, by striking screened-in porches from being considered as the outdoors. The proposed rule was overwhelmingly supported by smaller, pasture based farms that carried the organic certification, and overwhelmingly fought against by the bigger corporations; although it wasn't perceived as perfect, generally speaking it was viewed by animal welfare groups and small farms as a step forward in the fight for transparency. With public engagement and research into agriculture practices at an all time high, the integrity of the organic certification was at stake. After a period of public comment - the USDA decided to withdraw it.
The reason? Well, there are two main ones. The USDA "says it doesn’t have the legal authority to impose animal-welfare regulations, arguing that such decisions should be left to Congress. Second, it offers an “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” argument: organics are doing really well in the marketplace, meaning consumers trust them. And if consumers already trust them, why should they be further regulated?" (source below).
Well it really depends on what is important to you. If you have considered going organic (I'm talking meat here) to ensure the animals were never fed GMO's, then any organic meat sold in the grocery store is a safe bet.
If you are looking for the additional health benefits from pastured raised meats (like omega 3's, vitamin A etc. - more on this later), environmental impact, increased animals welfare standards (meaning where the animals are actually raised outdoors, in the sunshine and get to step foot on soil) - then the best bet is to go directly to the source - the person that actually raised the animals and that you can have a conversation with and ask further questions to - instead of putting all of your trust into a label on a package of meat. Maybe you have one, maybe you don't. That's why we started 1915, so we can be that source to answer your questions and make our meats accessible to anyone who wants them through our doorstep delivery (and post to social media often so you can see first hand how our animals are raised). Thanks for being here.
Shoot me an email at Catherine@1915farm.com if you have questions of your own!