It’s no secret that consumers are becoming more and more concerned about where their food comes from, how healthy it is, and in the case of animal products, how the animals were treated during their lives. One of the animal agriculture industry’s answers to this heightened consumer awareness has been organic animal products. In particular, organic chicken products have been touted as being better for us and better for the chickens themselves.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandates that chicken labeled as “organic” meets specific requirements, such as being fed 100 percent organic feed, provided access to the outdoors, and produced without growth-promoting drugs.

On the surface, all of that sounds pretty good. A closer look at the USDA’s organic requirements, however, shows that while organic chicken may be better for people, it is actually not much better for the chickens.

Where Organic Falls Short

Organic chicken standards absolutely have benefits over traditional chicken standards. Unfortunately, those benefits focus almost entirely on making chicken safer for people to eat, not on improving the welfare of chickens.

Organic Chickens Deprived of Medical Care

For example, organic chickens must be fed 100 percent organic feed and no plastic, growth hormones, manure, or poultry slaughter by-products (yes, traditional chicken production allows producers to feed leftover chicken body parts to other chickens). This is an improvement over what non-organic chickens are typically fed, but is chiefly intended to make chicken safer to eat rather than improve their lives.

Organic chickens who are treated with antibiotics when sick may no longer be sold as “organic.” This requirement is also designed to make chicken safer to eat, but the consequence is that producers often withhold medication from sick animals in order to maintain their valuable and more profitable “organic” label. This act is explicitly listed as prohibited, but that does not mean that it doesn’t happen. Because some chicken suppliers may prioritize profit, organic chickens often suffer without relief when they are sick or injured.

Painful Bodily Mutilations

Other gaps and loopholes in the organic regulations make it clear that organic practices are not much better than factory farm practices. Bodily mutilations, or “alterations” as the USDA likes to call them, are totally allowable under organic standards. This means that many chickens sold as organic still suffer from painful debeaking.

What Outdoor Access Really Means

Additionally, while year-round access to the outdoors is an organic standards requirement, the USDA does not adequately define this requirement, allowing producers to provide access to tiny, uninviting, outdoor dirt lots and still qualify as organic. Further, there are a plethora of exceptions to this rule that allows producers to keep chickens indoors indefinitely for a variety of reasons, such as bad weather, “the animal’s stage of life,” and “risk to soil.” Finally, the organic standards do not provide stocking density guidelines, and so chickens are often stuffed by the thousands into sheds and still sold as “organic.”

Of course, all organic chickens still end up in the same miserable slaughterhouses as all non-organic chickens.

Better for the Birds? Hardly.

Disturbingly, animal rights activists are not the only ones who have noticed the enormous gaps in organic chicken standards. The USDA’s own organic standards advisory board has indicated more than once that organic chicken standards are not acceptable in terms of animal welfare. In fact, the Board stated that the lack of real regulations has “restricted the welfare of animals to a considerable degree.” And yet, the USDA has refused on multiple occasions to strengthen the animal welfare aspects of its organic chicken regulations.

If the USDA’s own advisory board says that organic chicken standards are not good enough, we should truly be concerned. It’s clear that current organic standards are designed to take advantage of consumers concerned with their own health and the welfare of animals. It’s also clear that organic standards fall far short of what consumers expect when they select organic chicken at the grocery store.

All too often, organic chicken is simply factory-farmed chicken that was fed organic feed. Once again, the animal agriculture industry has proved that the only truly humane diet is one free of animal products.

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