Most consumers are under the impression that as long as a brand of chicken carries the USDA organic seal, there is nothing to worry about. They simply assume that the seal makes everything equal.
If only this were the case.
Unfortunately, there are major differences between how organic birds are raised on small family farms and those on ‘organic factory farms.’
In its excellent new investigative report called For the Birds: How to Recognize Authentic Organic Chicken and Turkey, watchdog organization The Cornucopia Institute uncovers empty assurances of big organic poultry brands and implores consumers to buy from authentic organic farmers.
Cornucopia also released an interactive Organic Poultry Scorecard that surveys more than 60 marketplace brands of chicken and turkey, highlighting authentic organic producers and exposing industrial-scale, faux-organic producers and brands.
I recently caught up with Cornucopia’s Marie Burcham, lead author of the report, to discuss her findings. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
What is the truth about organic chicken and turkey that most people do not understand?
The marketplace for organic poultry is highly consolidated, and conventional companies who are marketing organic products dominate the supply. Industrial organic poultry producers use a host of clever promotional tactics to belie the fact that they rarely allow their birds to have legitimate time outdoors. These chickens and turkeys are packed into barns for their short lifespans; individual birds may never see the outdoors.
What is the problem with the current rules?
The current organic regulations do little to ensure animal welfare for organic poultry. While producers are bound by requirements dictating pasturing for beef and dairy cattle, there are no such requirements for poultry. Additionally, there is no clear definition for “outdoor access” in the regulations. Overcrowding and confinement deprive birds of space to express their natural behaviors, leading to health concerns caused by stress on the flock.
Authentic organic chicken and turkey producers give their flocks sufficient room both indoors and outdoors. These superior producers give all their birds opportunities for legitimate foraging and the expression of other natural behaviors.
But authentic organic producers who care about animal welfare share the USDA organic label with producers who keep birds indoors for their entire short lives.
Are some organic certifiers simply not doing their job and is the USDA turning a blind eye to this?
Our organization has spent several years looking at the varying practices of USDA accredited certifiers. A small number of these, including OneCert and Organic Crop Improvement Association, certify livestock operations that adhere to the strictest standards for pasture quality and outdoor access. Other certifiers turn up again and again when Cornucopia files complaints with the USDA about grazing or pasture compliance, outdoor access, using porches for layers, animal abuse and other organic noncompliance.
Cornucopia is aware, via Freedom of Information Act requests, that some certifiers have skipped on-site visits entirely, failed to conduct unannounced inspections, lacked the number of inspectors required to perform inspections, and have not provided appropriate training to inspectors on their payroll. Some certifiers have missed or outright ignored egregious violations by some of the largest livestock producers.
The USDA’s National Organic Program has yet to provide guidance to certifiers that would clarify the livestock standards, and this has allowed certifiers to make liberal interpretations, pushing the bounds of what is logical given the language in both OFPA and the regulations.
In addition, complaints against certifiers rarely amount to de-accreditation from the USDA. When the USDA discovers non-compliance, its enforcement is often too little, too late. The fines levied against these massive operations and certifiers are viewed less as a deterrent than a cost of doing business.
What was the biggest thing you learned during the process of writing this report?
The dearth of authentic certified organic chicken and turkey is a real concern. The depth of this problem became very clear as I investigated brands in the marketplace. Most grocery store brands are owned by a handful of companies that produce conventional chicken as well. Authentic organic poultry farmers do exist, but their chicken and turkey may not be available to consumers throughout the country.
Once we realized that consumers may struggle to find truly organic chicken and turkey, we decided to publish a Do-it-Yourself Guide to Choosing The Best Chicken and Turkey. This resource helps consumers to ask farmers the kinds of insightful questions that an organic certifying agent would ask when inspecting an organic poultry farm.
Each time we shop at a grocery store or farmers market, we are voting for the production practices we value in our food system. Our everyday choices support the survival of authentic organic farmers, promote animal welfare and encourage better production practices.
Which seems more organic to you?
The industrial ‘organic’ producer (top) or the organic family farm (bottom). All photos courtesy of The Cornucopia Institute.
Max Goldberg, FounderCollaborate // Contact
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