It gives us a good feeling when we buy it, but organic chicken isn't any healthier for humans than conventionally raised chicken. We know what you're thinking to yourself right now. "There's no way that's right!" It actually is, and we'll explain why.
Organic chickens were raised according to comprehensive USDA specifications, which include eating organic feed. There may be environmental benefits, as organic farming minimizes pollution, but organic chickens do not have a nutritional advantage, though we did find them to be more robust in flavor.
Nate Lewis is senior crops and livestock specialist with the Organic Trade Association, and he stresses what he calls the “upstream effects” of organic poultry. Organic chickens eat organic feed (and get organic bedding), and organic feed is grown to standards that prohibit synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and are non-GMO. The crops are grown with practices designed to improve soil health, like cover cropping and crop rotation. The environmental impact of organic vs. conventional crops is, like so many issues in food, hotly debated, but if the soil-centric approach and prohibition of synthetics is why you buy organic produce, buying organic chicken makes perfect sense. (Organic birds are also raised without any antibiotics.)
Why the higher cost? Organic chickens are more expensive primarily because of the feed, most of which has to come from overseas because we don't produce enough in the U.S. Prices vary, but you can expect it to cost about twice as much as conventional.
The organic label tells you less about the life of the chicken than it does about those upstream effects. Living conditions for organic chickens are often better than those for conventional birds, but not always. The USDA has proposed new standards for farmers that focus on better living environments and animal welfare. Stay tuned for developments.
An organic bird is required to have access to the outdoors and an environment allowing it to express natural behaviors but, according to animal scientist Kirk Klasing, a professor at the University of California, Davis, those are very vague standards. “Organic rules are written in general terms. You can do very little and meet the standard,” he says. Lewis concurs. The outdoor access rule is no more strict than the USDA’s requirement for “free-range.” And as for expressing natural behaviors, “what the heck does that mean?” Lewis asks.
Because the rules are vague, Klasing says that the welfare standards on organic farms vary much more than the standards on conventional farms, which are more tightly controlled. “I see some organic farms that are really excellent, and some that are way worse than conventional systems,” he says.
But change is in the offing, says Lewis. There has been pressure within the organic community to tighten those rules, “a reaction to the fact that most organic poultry producers need to get additional certifications to meet their customers’ expectations.”