Many of us have an idea of what it means when food is “organic.” But what does it mean when a live animal, like a chicken, is deemed organic? I’m glad you asked.
At its essence, the term “organic” simply refers to matters animal or vegetable in origin. More recently, the definition has changed to reflect methods of food production in which no synthetic or artificial means are employed.
This seemingly straightforward concept becomes more complicated in matters of commerce. When the Organic Foods Production Act was enacted in 1990, it became illegal to market or promote any food as “organic” that does not meet strict regulations established by the USDA. Even with these standards in place and detailed criteria established, the letter of the law is sometimes confusing. This is particularly true when applying the term to poultry.
For chickens to be certified organic by the USDA, strict guidelines must be adhered to from the time birds are just two days old.
Antibiotics are commonly administered to commercially raised chickens. Antibiotics encourage weight gain in poultry and serve as a precaution against diseases that can develop in crowded or unsanitary conditions. Unfortunately, the widespread use of these antibiotics lead to antibiotic resistant germs affecting both animals and humans. Vaccinations are permitted by the USDA for the prevention of common illnesses.
No fillers or synthetic additives are permitted. Additionally, the grains used must not be GMO (genetically modified organisms), although in recent years this has come into question.
Chickens must also be able to feed without competition and have unlimited access to clean drinking water.
Chickens certified as organic must be provided consistent shelter and allowed access to the outside. For many years, the rule was vague and often exploited. It did not specify the amount of time outdoor access was provided, the size of the ranging area or the surface. The Access to Pasture rule enacted by the Department of Agriculture in 2010 now stipulates that organic chickens are not to be confined except for issues of health or shipping and must be given regular access to pasture land on which to forage.
Producers and processors of poultry labeled “organic” are subject to regular inspections by representatives of the Department of Agriculture to assure all criteria of the USDA regulations be met.
The USDA requirements must be met for a commercially sold chicken to bear the organic label. “Backyard” chickens raised at home need no certification, but the rules can serve as a helpful blueprint toward raising healthy birds.
Hatching chicks from the egg ensures an antibiotic-free backyard flock. From that point on, there are choices to be made to raise a chicken one might call “organic.”
In ideal conditions, the same guidelines commercial organic farmers use can be met for the home brood. Generally, practical considerations outweigh the best of intentions.
Paul Oscar Hamilton of Greenheart Family Farm in San Francisco, CA suggests the spirit may be more important than the letter of the law when it comes to raising organic chickens.
“The practicality of pasture-raising chickens may not fit the conditions,” Paul offers. “Sometimes ranging chickens may not be the best thing for them. It sounds good, but there are foxes and coyotes and skunks out there, so do you let them get picked off or do you do something about it?”
A popular choice is a moveable chicken coop known as a chicken tractor. A tractor has no floor and can be moved about to allow chickens access to fresh pasture without the risk of a predator attack. Thoughtful confinement makes sense, but it doesn’t follow the rules.
Chicken feed is another consideration. Because organic feed must meet stringent requirements regarding how the grain is grown and processed, the cost is more than triple that of conventional feed.
Paul is pragmatic. “You might say, ‘I’ve got this beautiful natural pasture, but I can’t spend the money on expensive organic feed.’ So you make a choice.”
Making choices and measured concessions for the good of the flock may not meet the requirements for commercial distribution of these chickens or the eggs they lay. But for those who choose to raise chickens in their backyard, another label is likely the last thing they are looking for.
“Maybe it’s more about sustainability than calling it organic,” Paul concludes. “How do we feed the world? How do you find a good chicken?”