According to livestock standards, birds for slaughter designated as organic must be raised under organic management starting no later than the second day of life. Preventive management practices, including the use of vaccines to keep animals healthy, are used; however, antibiotics cannot be used for any reason, and federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in all poultry. Organic management standards prohibit producers from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal, but animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic. All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors; they may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, or to protect soil or water quality.
For a product to be labeled with the “USDA organic” seal, it must comply with USDA National Organic Standards. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, and the USDA established national organic standards in 2002. As of 2011, the organic layer flock in the USA was approximately 6.5 million hens, and the average number of organic broilers processed each week was approximately 0.5 million birds. This represents approximately 2.3% or the layer population and 0.3% of the broiler production. In the years from 2001 to 2011, the organic layer flock has grown 400%, and broilers processed as organic has grown 900%. However, it is important to realize that there are years in the past 10 where both layer and broiler organic numbers have shrunk from one year to the next. Growth of these areas is not a straight and predictable line.
The first step toward organic certification for a poultry producer is to select a third-party certifier. The USDA keeps an actively updated list of accredited certification agencies, all of which follow the same USDA National Organic Standards. The producer then submits an application and Organic System Plan (OSP) to the selected certification agency. In livestock production, this plan includes information on the animal source, feeding practices, management practices, health care, recordkeeping, and product labeling. The certifier then reviews the OSP and, if it is deemed adequate, assigns a qualified organic inspector to the livestock facility. The inspector conducts a detailed evaluation of the OSP and the actual farm practices, provides a written exit interview of findings to the producer, and prepares a report to the certifier. If the farm is found to meet all National Organic Program standards, an organic certificate may be issued. The livestock product must be labeled with information identifying both the producer and certifier (“Certified organic by...”). The use of the USDA organic seal on packaging is optional. Organic certification requires annual inspections of the poultry farm.
Animal Production Claims and “Natural” Claims
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) permits the use of animal production claims and the term “natural.” FSIS permits the application of “animal production claims” (ie, truthful statements about the raising of animals from which meat and poultry products are derived) on the labeling of meat and poultry products. For many years, animal production claims have served as an alternative to the use of the term “organic” on the labeling of meat and poultry products in the absence of a uniformly accepted definition. Thus, producers may wish to continue the use of animal production claims (eg, “Raised Without Added Hormones,” “Free Range,” "No Antibiotics Ever," "All Vegetarian Diet") on meat and poultry labeling. The system FSIS has in place to evaluate the necessary supporting documentation to ensure the accuracy of animal production claims, such as producer affidavits of specific raising protocols or independent 3rd party programs with audits, will continue to be used whenever these types of claims are made.
The term “natural” may be used when products contain no artificial ingredients and are no more than minimally processed in accordance with FSIS Policy Memo 055. This term may be used in combination with the claim “certified organic by (a certifying entity)” when these requirements are met. The definition of "naturally raised" is being reviewed by the USDA and may result in changes to these definitions.
Last full review/revision May 2015 by Bruce Stewart-Brown, DVM, DACPV