Organic looking to corner the market on humanely raised meat

Sept. 8, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

Meat and poultry labels can be crammed with claims about how animals are raised. Many are not backed up by USDA definitions. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

Listen To This Story

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 comes from animals that were raised humanely. Organic producers want to answer that question more clearly.

Knowing all about the food on the menu is a big part of the job for Chef Andrew DiDonato at The Hub Cafe, in Lincoln. The Hub makes a point of serving meat that’s considered humanely raised. It’s even certified by the group, Animal Welfare Approved.

That means a lot of homework for DiDonato, who’s still fairly new at the restaurant. There are conversations with farmers, and plans for farm visits.

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 said. “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, said 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 said.

More from NET News and Harvest Public Media:

Farmers on the meaning of organic

Factions clash within the organic food industry

What’s organic? In the marijuana industry that’s a hard question

Pesticide drift threatens organic farms

Andrew Didonato, the chef at The Hub Café in Lincoln, regularly visits with farmers about how they raise and handle the livestock that provide meat for the restaurant. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

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 is it 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,” said 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.

“We want organic to be the gold standard for what consumers are looking for,” said Nate Lewis of the Organic Trade Association.

The OTA is supporting an update to organic animal welfare guidelines, so that in the minds of shoppers “organic” becomes shorthand for “more humane.”

Among other things, the new standards tell farmers how much space to give their chickens. They prohibit practices like tail docking for cattle, that is, cutting the tails short. Also, animals have to be able to go outdoors when weather allows. And outside means on dirt, a stipulation added to end 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. Lewis says that makes the organic label stand out.

“What’s going to differentiate this regulation from other animal welfare claims is the oversight of the federal government,” the OTA’s Nate Lewis said.

Organic Smart Chicken carries both the organic label and a label from Certified Human, a third party animal welfare auditor. CEO Kevin Siebert says both labels will likely remain after the organic rules are updated. "Their audit and verification requirements are very strong, and it is a nice 'second opinion' on our management of our organic operations," Siebert said.

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,” said 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 reflects negatively on their products, whether or not consumers prefer organic methods. A conventional dairy producer, for instance, might not shorten the tails of his cows. But because he doesn’t use organic feed at his dairy, there’s no government label for him.

As consumer values become a bigger part of food marketing, the preferred status of organic products creates friction with conventional producers.

“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,” said 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 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 said.

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.


Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.