From James McWilliams
My hunch at this point is that the organic poultry business is framed by organic standards that conveniently miss the “breeder/hatchery” link in the supply chain in order to foster an undeserved sense of purity.
First come the rules. The Organic Trade Association writes:
Because organic practices recognize and respect the powerful nature of antibiotics, organic practices protect human health in the long term. Organic practices prohibit the use of hormones, antibiotics or other animal drugs in animal feed for the purpose of stimulating the growth or production of livestock. If an antibiotic is used to restore an animal to health, that animal cannot be used for organic production or be sold, labeled or represented as organic. Thus, organic practices avoid the abuse of antibiotics that could have profound consequences for treatment of disease in humans, including the serious dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Then comes the reality. A trusted source tells me:
[T]here is no such thing as organic egg production anyhow, since nearly all fertilized eggs come from the multinational breeders and the eggs don’t have a good hatchability rate unless they’re pre-injected with antibiotics or antibiotics are put into the starter feed. . . . The small independent breeders are ghosts and have mostly disappeared. So no one is really breeding pure genetics outside the multinationals very much for independent markets.
In the course of writing The Modern Savage I became accustomed to this kind of disparity. The gulf between stated conditions and reality stands to reason as more and more consumers seek to more responsibly source their animal products. Indeed, the biggest factor challenging the organic claim is undeniable: the size of the organic poultry and egg industry has exploded. That explosion, I would contend, makes truly organic standards impossible. Mark Keating writes:
The latest 2011 USDA Certified Organic Production survey (PDF) pegs the organic poultry market at $412 million ($275 million for eggs, $115 million for broilers (meat birds) and $22 million for turkeys) while placing sales of organic milk at $763 million. Raising this many organic chickens also supports the premium prices organic grain farmers receive for feed corn and soybeans which consistently run roughly twice the price of the conventional market.
But what about breeders and hatcheries? To my knowledge there are no commercial-scale organic breeders (do correct me if I’m wrong). In fact, one source informs me that “A&J Farms is the only hatchery in the United States that is Organic.” It’s not very large. Given that virtually all the chickens bred for this business will come from multinational breeders that, as my source suggests, deliver antibiotics as a matter of course (to enhance “hatchability”), by what right do we call organic eggs and chicken organic? Antibiotic use, after all, is not allowed under the label.
This seems like a question worth pursuing further. When I delve into these topics I sometimes feel as if I’m missing something obvious. I may be in this case. But my hunch at this point is that the organic poultry business is framed by organic standards that conveniently miss the “breeder/hatchery” link in the supply chain in order to foster an undeserved sense of purity. Look for more on this topic, probably at Pacific Standard, in the near future.