What does the certified organic label on meat actually mean?

Some shoppers mistakenly assume the organic label assures the highest standard of nutrition, humane treatment of animals and sound ecological practices.

Applying organic standards to meat production is a difficult task. In addition to human health and ecological considerations, there is also the need to create standards that address the humane treatment of the animals we raise for food.

Organic regulations for plants focus solely on the farming methods used to grow the produce, whereas meat requires regulation at various levels of its production, including the process by which the animals’ feed is cultivated, living standards, and what happens to the meat after slaughter.

Environmental and animal welfare issues on factory farms

Organic regulation attempts to address three major problems with today’s conventional farming practices—its impact on the environment, human health and the welfare of animals.

Many conventional farms are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFOs.  Due to the density in which animals are confined, massive amounts of manure build up—which release both methane, a major greenhouse gas, and other pollutants into the environment—affect both local air and water quality.  Manure from CAFOs is listed by the EPA as the fifth largest producer of methane.

In densely packed animal feed operations, cleanliness can be hard to manage, creating the conditions by which disease is easily spread.  To counteract this, conventional farmers often treat their animals with antibiotics—not only via injection for specific animals who are evidently ill, but by including a constant low dose of antibiotics in the animals’ daily feed. Overuse of antibiotics leads to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria which is why countries like South Korea have banned the addition of subtheraputic antibiotics in all livestock feed.

Another concern is the contamination of nearby water supplies by antibiotics from animal’s urine.  In large, crowded herds or flocks, the effluence often ends up in sewage lagoons—which can contain the various pharmaceuticals that have been administered to the animals.  These lagoons can contaminate ground water and local streams, where fish and wildlife can be exposed to whatever chemicals and drugs the farm animals consumed.

In a study of supermarket chicken, researchers at Johns Hopkins University detected not only antibiotics, but pain killers, allergy medicines, caffeine and antidepressants.  Apparently caffeine keeps chickens awake, and stimulates them to eat more—while antidepressants are used to reduce anxiety, which can interfere with growth.

The stressful life that animals lead in confined and dense spaces often leads to aggressive behavior.  In order to control this aggressive behavior, the practice of tail amputation, beak and toe clipping, and crating are commonplace.

The use of crates to house animals in the meat industry has also been a prominent topic amongst animal rights organizations.  Crates have been used in the pork, veal, and the poultry industry to keep animals from hurting themselves or others, to monitor their feed and health, to prevent trampling, and to limit their movement to produce a more succulent product.

Furthermore, animals on conventional farms are often housed indoors for their entire lives, in which minimal natural light and air is supplemented by artificial lighting and often noxiously poor ventilation.  In some such indoor factory farms, the levels of ammonia are so high that animals develop chronic respiratory illness and blisters on their skin.

Feed

Livestock and poultry feed often contains animal by-products that are processed by meat rendering plants.  According to an EPA report, “Independent plants obtain animal by-product materials, including grease, blood, feathers, offal, and entire animal carcasses, from the following sources: butcher shops, supermarkets, restaurants, fast-food chains, poultry processors, slaughterhouses, farms, ranches, feedlots, and animal shelters.”

While only incurring temporary bans in the UK, in 1997 the FDA prohibited the use of most mammalian protein in ruminant feed.  Similarly, the practice has also been banned in Canada. Ruminants, such as cows and sheep, are herbivores evolved to eat grass—not meat. This ban was passed due to the risk of outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—more commonly known as mad-cow disease—which has been associated with cows being fed meat and bone meal.

Meat and bone meal is allowed in pork and poultry feed.  Unlike ruminants who are strict herbivores, both pigs and birds are omnivorous by nature—typically eating bugs and worms.  The concern is not the inclusion of animal by-products in their feed—rather, it is the source of the animal protein—namely, whether same-species protein is included, effectively resulting in cannibalism.

The EU has banned all animal protein being fed to farm animals meant for human consumption; however it allows fish meal, animal proteins that have been hydrolyzed (a protein that is broken down to its amino acids) and dicalcium phosphate.

Growth hormones

The conventional beef and dairy industry has also integrated the use of growth hormones to bring animals to slaughter weight faster or to increase milk production.  The use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) in these industries has increased the rate of calf deformity, reproductive issues, the occurrence of mastitis (a painful infection of the udder), and lameness.

Public concern has been expressed that rbGH can cause human related health problems as well, such as increasing the risk of cancer.  Its use is prohibited in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and in the 27 countries of the European Union.

Earlier this spring, Taiwanese protesters demanded a ban on the importation of meat from the United States from animals treated with another growth hormone, ractopamine—which is banned by Taiwan, the EU and China.

Aggressive breeding

Breeding in the poultry industry has also proven to stretch the limits of what animals can endure.  Chickens and turkeys have been bred to incredible weights, in unequal proportions—primarily in the breast meat.  Turkeys have been bred to have such large breasts compared to their bodies that they sometimes cannot walk and frequently cannot breed naturally, necessitating breeding by artificial insemination.  This rapidly increased weight gain has caused foot and leg disorders, immune deficiencies, painful sores, and a decrease in their ability or desire to go outside, even if access is granted them.

A not so happy ending

Slaughter in conventional poultry farming has been another point of contention for animal welfare organizations.  The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in the US requires animals to be “rendered insensible to pain” before slaughter.

Although this act was heavily supported by the public, the meat industry was able to exempt poultry from this standard, meaning that the nine billion reported fowl which are raised on conventional farms in the US are left to state or individual farmers’ standards for humane slaughter.

What is allowed in our meat during processing but is not labeled?

Recently, there has been a furor in the media over what has been termed ‘pink slime’.  Pink slime is a beef-based additive, usually taken from fatty trimmings that are discarded from other prime cuts of meat.  These trimmings are mechanically separated from bone and added to processed beef products, acting as an inexpensive filler.  Public uproar has focused on its ingredient of ammonia—which is used to disinfect the meat product—reducing its chances of containing E. coli and salmonella.

The public’s outrage in discovering what has been commonly added in burgers across the nation for years is not simply due to the nature of the product itself.  The real issue behind the matter is that people do not know what they are being fed, not only when they go out to eat, but when they take home food from the grocery store.

Ammonia is not the only chemical agent allowed in meat production.  The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has a 52 page list of chemicals that are allowed in the production meat, poultry, and eggs.  Most of the chemicals listed under this document are exempt from being labeled on the finished product.

So what is organic meat?

You may think the solution to these industrial meat enormities is certified organic. Some certified organic farmers do adhere to high standards of animal welfare and ecologically sound practices.  But the bar for entry into the certified organic club is not as high as that.

When you pick up a certified organic chicken at the supermarket, you may have an image of a healthy bird pecking around in grass in a small flock on a farm.  The reality may look more like thousands of chickens living their lives in a giant shed.  While they are required to have access to the outdoors—this term can, and has, been interpreted in some amazingly shady ways.

It is important to understand what organic meat regulations cover and what they do not. In the US, National Organic Program (NOP) standards mostly focus on regulations for ruminant farm animals (cows, sheep, and goats).

NOP standards state that ruminants must have access to pasture throughout the grazing season.  Their diet should consist of at least 30% dry matter from pasture grazing during this season (totaling at least 120 days) while the other 70% of their diet must be certified organic feed that does not contain any mammalian or poultry by-products.

That sounds good on the face of it, but that 70% of non-pasture feed usually consists of grain and soy. Ruminants are evolved to eat grass, not grains or beans.  Furthermore, swathes of Amazonian rainforest have been cleared to plant soy for use in cattle and chicken feed. There has been much discussion on the unsustainability of raising herbivores on grain.

These standards are similar for the pork and poultry industry, which do not allow animal by-products in the feed and require access to the outdoors. In the US, physical alterations such as tail docking, beak trimming, and castration may still be practiced, while debeaking is banned for organic producers in the UK.

And although there has been much disgust with commodity organic producers who provide a concrete porch to satisfy the mandate that animals be given continuous access to the outdoors, animals raised under organic certification are at least never confined to cages and crates, which are commonly used in CAFOs.

Most significantly, certified organic means that animals are never treated with growth hormones or antibiotics; however, animals are allowed vaccinations.  Their environments are likewise free from petrochemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides.

Where organic falls short

Organic standards do not regulate animal welfare beyond what has been listed here.   As previously mentioned, the NOP’s standards primarily focus on ruminants, with few specifications for pork and poultry.  The lack of these specifications is especially important when it comes to the NOP’s requirement that animals be granted access to the outdoors.

As Animal Welfare Approved, a third party animal welfare auditor, points out, “The type of outdoor access provided, the length of time animals are required to have outdoor access, and how this is verified is not legally defined, and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility.”

Supplying 100% organic feed also does not address weight and digestive issues herbivores experience from an unnatural diet of corn and soy.

Also, certain types of fowl raised in organic farms are still those bred to quickly reach a higher weight than their skeletons can support. Animal Welfare Approved certification addresses this by prohibiting the selection of breeds that suffer due to genetic selection, but this aspect is notably absent in organic regulations.

According to the HSUS report on the state of animal welfare in the chicken industry, ”Between 5-7 weeks of age, broiler chickens spend 76-86% of their time lying down, depending on the degree to which they suffer from lameness.”  Turkeys suffer similar conditions from weight gain.  Even though poultry may have access to the outdoors, it does not necessarily mean that they will, or even can, go outside.

How do I choose?

A certified organic product guarantees a minimum threshold for safety, most notably by keeping antibiotics and growth hormones, chemical pesticides, herbicides and petrochemical fertilizers out of the food chain.  This is a significant gain, for both individual human health and ecology.  But there is much that certification does not cover.

There are organic farms run by principled farmers, and others that are commodity organic.  One certified organic farm may only go as far as to meet the bare minimum requirements for organic certification, retaining many features of a factory farm; while another will surpass the minimum, incorporating high welfare practices for animals and regenerative land management.

As both carry the same organic seal, the only way to know the difference is to do some research and become familiar with the farms in your region.  And when you consider that some of the most responsible and ethical farmers may elect not to be certified, getting to know your local producers becomes even more important.

Farmers markets are a great place for consumers to connect with local, smaller producers, who are at their disposal to answer any questions about how their animals are raised or, for products that contain meat, where their meat is sourced from.  Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm subscription schemes also allow consumers to source locally from produce and meat farmers whose methods they support.

Do you prefer beef that is mostly grass-fed but grain finished, or do you prefer 100% grass-fed?  Do you mind meat from a farmer that reserves the right to treat an animal responsibly with antibiotics if necessary or would you rather one that prohibits the use?  Whatever you choose, familiarize yourself with the issues so that your choices are informed and reflect well considered priorities.

It’s not only at the grocery store that a consumer should ask themselves these important questions.  In the US, one in four meals is eaten out of the home.  Diners should support restaurants that provide the labels or names of reputable meat suppliers.

Consumer preference may differ when it comes to feed or antibiotic treatment, but when it comes to the welfare of animals, the most natural and humane method of raising them—whether they are birds, pigs or ruminants such as cows—is through pasture-based farming.

This method offers a natural way of life for the animals, as well as species-appropriate food.  There is no need for chicken’s beaks to be removed, and using breeds that grow so fast they collapse under their own weight simply does not work in a pasture-based system. These farmers often choose heritage breeds of poultry, pigs and ruminants.

Pasture-raised meat and eggs tend to be costly. And at the rate we consume meat, there isn’t enough pasture land to switch to a 100% pasture based system for all farm animals. It takes, for instance, many acres of pasture to provide enough grass for just one cow.

Unless consumers are willing to pay more for the highest quality naturally raised meat, and eat less of it—more intensive, less natural systems of bringing animal products—including dairy and eggs—to the table will continue to be practiced.


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