Chicken and other livestock raised for meat qualifies for USDA Organic certification if it meets the following guidelines: all feed consumed by the animal needs to be 100% organic from early in life, they must never receive any antibiotics, hormones, or other treatments, and they must have access to the outdoors on untreated, organic land with sunlight and shelter available (source). From my research and experience, it would seem that organic practices alone don’t ensure the meat is tastier or even more nutritious than non-organic. So what is the difference?
Let’s try to look at this divisive issue as logically as possible. Looking at the USDA’s requirements, I think there are two key factors that differentiate organic meat we consumers and farmers need to consider. First is the assurance that there are no pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, etc., affecting the meat in unnatural ways. Second is morality. Let’s explore these further.
Organic meat ensures there are no undesirable substances
Does meat actually make people sick if it isn’t organic? As far as I know, there is no evidence that non-organic meat causes cancer, gives you an upset stomach, or makes you fatter or thinner or less happy or hungrier or bored or anything else negative. That’s as far as I know, which isn’t actually that far.
It’s safe to assume that the USDA is certainly not overly worried about pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, etc.. With non-organic chicken making up a stunning 99.77% of the total chicken consumed in the United States in recent years (that’s nearly 8 billion chickens, by the way), we better hope the effects aren’t serious. 9 out of 10 people eat chicken regularly at an average of 3 times a week. If that many people are eating dangerous meat, we’re in trouble. (Source)
SO Is non-organic 100% guaranteed to be safe?
While it would SEEM things should be OK with non-organic, how can we truly KNOW we are in the clear? Maybe the trouble is there and we just have not been able to identify it. There are so many health issues out there that have unknown origins and there has always been disagreement over what is safe, what is healthy, and what is right when it comes to regulations of substances. Before it was discovered that certain substances were harmful, they were used extensively. Lead used to be in paint and asbestos used to be in the walls. BPA was in our water bottles. Sometimes it’s just a matter of time before trouble can be pinpointed. In the meantime things are treated with wishy-washy labels like “generally regarded as safe” or no labeling at all.
And let’s not neglect the fact that those ~8 billion chickens are part of the greater American farming economy. Money is a factor in whether the meat Americans eat is organic. Think about it: it could cost millions, maybe billions, of dollars to convert that industry to be even half organic. Consumers would have to pay more for the certified meat. Some farmers don’t believe in it, others simply can’t afford it.
Is it so far fetched to believe the USDA, farmers, and even people eating non-organic chicken regularly, have their fingers crossed that the non-organic practices are truly 100% safe? How much is the certainty that your meat is safe worth to you?
That’s why we raise meat by organic standards. We don’t want to have to hope for the best. We want to KNOW it’s safe.
The morality and compassion of organic meat
Maybe you’ve heard people market their meat and eggs as having come from “happy chickens” or “happy cows”. I find this somewhat funny because, from my observations, our free-range, egg-laying hens never exhibit anything I’d consider close to happiness. Instead they wander around in a routine of highly focused scratching and pecking, occasionally making a lot of noise (especially after laying an egg). When they see one of us coming with scraps they sprint in our direction, not because they’re excited to see us, but instead because they are racing each other to be the one to eat the most. They never say thank you, never rub against my legs in affection, and definitely never crack a smile.
Maybe it is the farmers who are happier with the conditions, then? I know it makes me feel good knowing my chickens are living a more natural life. Instead of sitting in a cage that barely contains them all day fattening up, organic animals have space to walk around, sunshine, shelter, and their feet can press into the earth. We don’t see them and feel bad, we see them and enjoy watching them browse in the grass. It is said that raising chickens reduces stress considerably, and I can’t imagine this could be false. Often when I am feeling stressed about something I make my way to our deck. From there I can survey our flock hunting ticks, ruffling their feathers in a dust bath, or taking a rest and roosting. And I feel such comfort, I am able to relax.
A calm farmer is not likely to neglect the animals and garden. A calm farmer doesn’t feel rushed and won’t cut corners. A calm farmer brings more joy to the world by doing a better job and reaping the benefits. This gets passed on to everyone that eats their produce and meat and anyone that crosses their path. It makes the world a better place!
The Mental State of the Animal
Another factor to consider with the organic living conditions is the mental state of the animal. Actually… wait. If we are going to eat them anyways, who cares what they are thinking?
As it happens, the mental state of chickens (and likely all livestock) can have a considerable effect on the resulting meat. Looking strictly at chickens, I’ve seen what stress can do to a flock. From poor egg laying to ferocious pecking all the way to birds dropping dead, stress can cause some serious problems. Chickens can be stressed out for a variety of reasons: sudden changes in temperature, lack of space, predators lurking and attacking, injuries, poor handling, and, believe it or not, lack of stimulation from unchanging and constrained living conditions. The results of these stressors can be unpredictable. Chickens might lash out at each other, plucking the feathers of their companions and even progressing towards cannibalism. They might stop laying eggs. They might stop walking. They might not eat enough and not put on as much meat as you expected. They could get sick and even die.
The organic standards help prevent a lot of these issues, which quickly escalate in seriousness that not only affects the population of birds, it affects the quality and quantity of the meat.
organic standards help the animals grow healthier and produce better meat
All chickens raised organically must have access to the outdoors and sunshine. This ensures they experience the benefits of natural light, which tunes their biological clocks. They can also fulfill their instincts to scratch and peck at the earth, maybe eat some bugs. This natural activity ensures their bodies develop more closely to how nature intended, which translates to meat that is not compromised. Humans have evolved eating “organic” meat for millions of years, so it makes sense that we should have some preference for meat that is as natural as possible.
And from a culinary standpoint, a bird that lays around all day is going to have quite different breast and thigh meat than a bird that can take a daily stroll and spread its wings from time to time. In our experience the meat from birds that sit around can be less appetizing in texture and appearance than the more naturally raised birds.
What about Taste & Nutritional Value?
Like I wrote earlier, I don’t think organic or non-organic necessary means more nutrition or taste. I do think texture can be affected, as can the quantity and quality of meat (all in favor of organic). Better nutritional value and taste really come from the chicken breed specifically as well as the feeding practices. Breeds that have been optimized to grow to typical grocery size of 3-4 pounds in an efficient amount of time with an efficient amount of feed are not likely to give you a nice, flavorful bird, even if they meet all organic requirements. Let’s be honest, chicken from the grocery store is a product that is produced by a business looking at the bottom line. Flavor and nutrition take a back seat to the real deliverable.
We are constantly evolving our breed selection and practices to see what works and what doesn’t, and will have a lot to share about that on this site in later posts. But what we have found across the board is that birds we raise (and other farmer friends have raised) always turn out better than even the priciest of meat at the grocery store.
Interested in Trying Some Good Chicken?
Some photos in this post are used for illustration purposes only and do not necessarily depict the people, animals, or conditions of our farm.
Further reading on organic chicken farming in the US referenced while writing this post: