When shoppers browse meat at the grocery store they are confronted with all kinds of brands and labels, making it hard to tell whether the meat they buy comes from animals that were raised humanely. Organic producers want to answer that question more clearly, but conventional farmers are charging that proposed changes to organic standards would amount to unfair government backing of the organic industry.
At the grocery store, interpreting how livestock are raised is a complicated task. Product labels are crowded with claims: free range, no antibiotics, cage free, veggie fed, pasture raised, natural, and even farm fresh. Not only can it be confusing, it can also be misleading. Many of the claims made on product labels have no strict definition or oversight.
“We survey consumers on a regular and ongoing basis and many times find they are buying something based on an inaccurate understanding of what it is,” says Kevin Seibert, CEO of Tecumseh Poultry which produces organic and non-organic Smart Chicken products. “Organic and Certified Humane are meaningful claims, but they are diluted by the plethora of claims that identify only a part of the organic and certified humane standards.”
The organic industry is looking to cut through the clutter and stake its own claim with carnivores suffering a crisis of conscience.
The original organic standards were rather vague when it comes to animal welfare. There have been updates over the years, requiring grazing for cattle and outdoor access for other livestock. Then, in 2011, the National Organic Standards Board, which includes members from across the organic industry, made a list of more specific proposals to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Among other things, the new standards tell farmers how much space to give their chickens. Hogs must be housed in groups, not individual stalls, and must have something to root around in with their snouts. Also, animals have to be able to go outdoors when weather allows. And outside means on dirt, a stipulation added to counteract the use of so-called poultry porches which let birds out of their barns, but not on the ground.
It’s up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the organic program, to approve the new rules.
“We want organic to be the gold standard for what consumers are looking for,” says Nate Lewis of the Organic Trade Association.
The OTA is supporting the updates to organic animal welfare guidelines. They make organic farming practices more consistent across the country. And they allow the organic industry to bill organic meat as the humane choice. The industry could advertise its government-certified label so that in the minds of shoppers “organic” becomes shorthand for “more humane.”
Lewis says that would make the organic label stand out.
“What’s going to differentiate this regulation from other animal welfare claims is the oversight of the federal government,” says the OTA’s Nate Lewis.
Organic producers will have something that other farmers don’t: a USDA seal of approval that suggests organic livestock live better lives. Groups that represent conventional livestock farmers say that gives the wrong impression.
“All industries adapt to consumer demand,” says Dan Kovich, a veterinarian with the National Pork Producers Council. “Concern for animal welfare is not in any way unique to organic production.”
Groups like the Pork Producers say having the USDA behind organic standards doesn’t just promote the organic industry, it reflects negatively on conventional products.
Take for instance “tail docking,” a practice often criticized by animal welfare advocates in which farmers shorten the tails of their cows in order to make the dairy barn more orderly. A conventional dairy producer might not engage in cow-tail docking, but because he doesn’t use organic feed at his dairy there’s no government label for him. The animal welfare practices are similar, but one farm gets a boost.
As consumer values become a bigger part of food marketing, the preferred status of organic products is creating friction with conventional producers all over the food system’s map.
“For many people, they’re also competing with this idea that organic food is safer, more nutritious, and frankly better for you and for the environment,” says Candace Croney, director of the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University.
The reality behind those assumptions is more complicated. Organic is better for the environment in some ways, but probably not in others. That leaves conventional farmers worried about the cost of measuring up if they can’t sell at organic prices.
“They feel they are under social pressure to do what other people are doing, that they may not actually even feel is the right thing to do, or the safe thing to do, or a good thing to do,” Croney says.
For consumers, knowing where their food comes from and how it is raised is increasingly important, but often hard to do. The Hub Cafe, in Lincoln, Nebraska, makes a point of serving meat that’s considered humanely raised – it’s even certified by the group Animal Welfare Approved – which means a lot of homework for chef Andrew DiDonato.
Back in the kitchen, DiDonato can recite the backstory of a smoked chicken leg sizzling in a skillet. It comes from a local producer, Plum Creek Farms, where the birds spend most of the year outside, roaming on a grass pasture, or inside spacious barns when it gets cold.
“They’re all free range,” Didonato says. “It makes for a really tasty chicken and a happy chicken.”
All of that background information would be hard for most people to gather themselves, says Krista Dittman, one of the restaurant’s owners.
“Certainly, there are people who make it their life’s work to know where their food comes from, but that’s not always feasible for everyone,” Dittman says.
Labels like those designating organic food are designed to clear up that clutter, even if they sometimes only sow more confusion.
The new organic animal welfare standards are expected to be finalized by the end of the year. When that happens it could clear up some questions for consumers, but leave division behind the plate.