When I started to write an article about organic meat, I honestly thought it would be fairly straightforward and I would list some pros and cons and be done with it. It was not to be so.
In hindsight, it’s not surprising that when I looked into the consumption of organic meat and meat in general, that things got complicated. After all, my own relationship with meat has been complicated over the years too.
I have been a vegetarian and an omnivore and I think that basically, the title of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, sums it up. There is no doubt that meat has played a critical role in our evolution, but our obsession with it is now having far reaching environmental impacts, not to mention animal welfare concerns.
So has been the case in my own life. I go weeks without a sniff of meat and then the neighbor fires up the barbecue and suddenly I’m salivating like Pavlov’s dogs! So, what do we do?
Well, like everything in life, there are choices, and we need to make the decisions that are right for us. However, here is some information about organic meat that may help inform your choices.
The standards behind the beef (and chicken, pork…etc)
There is a premium associated with certified organic meat and so what does that label and increased price tag mean?
It is the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that is charged with defining the term organic and setting the standards behind the certification label. As you are likely already aware, these standards define agricultural practices that ‘foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,’ (source).
Many of the standards specifically address the care of animals, whether for meat or for other products such as milk and eggs. These livestock standards address four main areas:
1) The origin of the animal – simply, where the animal came from. Organic pork, for instance, must be sourced from an organically grown mother.
2) What the animals are fed – meat and animal products sold as organic must come from animals given 100% certified organic feed. The use of hormones to promote growth is prohibited.
3) The health care of the animals – all livestock must be given food that meets the nutritional requirements for that animal. When an animal becomes ill they must be treated and if antibiotics have to be used, any products from that animal can’t be sold as organic. However, treatment can’t be withheld simply to preserve organic status.
4) The living conditions of the animals – the regulations dictate that the animals must have access to direct sunlight, an exercise area, air circulation, and other things that are considered important to the comfort and well being of the animals.
In 2010, the USDA (NOSB) adopted new organic regulations with respect to livestock, making them stricter to discourage abuse of the label and the animals themselves. As of the new regulations, ruminant livestock must receive at least 30% of the total daily dry matter intake from grazing during the growing season, but not less than 120 days annually. The animals must have year-round access to the outdoors, and pasture must be considered a crop and incorporated to the organic management plan.
The following video gives a summary of the regulations pertaining to livestock:
As you can imagine providing pasture, keeping lower densities of animals to avoid health risks, and supplying organic feed for animals means that the cost of farming is increased while the production is somewhat less. As a result, the consumers pay a premium. However, in my mind this is a small cost to know that I am supporting agriculture that is gentler on the planet and friendlier for animals.
What factors influence our decision to buy organic meat?
Paying a little more to help the planet is an easy decision for me, and if you’re reading EVG you may be similarly minded. However, care for the environment is not a driving factor for much of the population.
In fact, a Swiss study surveyed people and asked them to rate a series of actions as being highly beneficial to the environment down to least beneficial. They then were asked which actions they were most likely to take. Purchasing organic food and reducing meat consumption were both rated as the least environmentally beneficial actions. On top of this, they were the two actions people were least willing to take. Incidentally, purchasing products with less packaging was rated number one.
The bottom line is if you want to sell organic meat for more to the majority of consumers, you need to link in the health impacts.
The problem is that there is very little evidence to tout the line for organic…anything. A study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 98,727 articles and found 12 relevant studies that rigorously compared the nutritional quality and health benefits of eating organic food versus non-organic. There was one study that showed a reduced incidence of eczema in infants as a result of an organic diet but otherwise no evidence of differences in nutrition-related health outcomes could be found.
This presents a problem. How do we motivate those that are less concerned about the environment and animal welfare?
I wish I had the answer.
Personally, I live the omnivore’s dilemma. I’ve read books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and it has deeply affected me. I’ve also witnessed my 4-year old son bare his canines and demolish ground beef after not having meat for a month and nearly cry with the pleasure of it. So, my middle ground has been to severely reduce our meat intake as a whole (about one meal a week). When we do eat meat, it’s organic meat and it’s purchased from a local butcher who literally has pictures of where the animals were raised on the wall. It’s not perfect, but it’s the choice my family has made for now.