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JUST WHAT IS ORGANIC MEAT

by Kenneth Solway

 

Let me dispel once and for all the myth that our planet would be better off if Homo Sapiens were entirely a herbivorous species. Chemical use may be evil, but the greatest threat from agriculture is soil erosion and topsoil loss. To replace meats with other protein sources such as corn, soy, rice and wheat means taking land out of the production of the one crop that does it good – long-term pastures and hay, especially legumes like alfalfa. We don’t eat hay and pasture, not being blessed with multiple stomachs, but this well-protected soil can help feed us when converted into animal protein. A sad and rapid deterioration of mother earth’s land resources would result if much of that land had to be ploughed up every year to produce more wheat.;

While the concept of organic agriculture is gradually receiving broad acceptance, nothing in this integrity-based industry is more confusing than just what constitutes "organic" meat. Certain farmers are going to great lengths and expense to attempt to produce "certifiable" organic meats. But there are many more products being marketed under the guise that they are "organic", "natural", or any other of the popular buzzwords, reaping undeserved profits, deceiving consumers, and all the while playing havoc with the entire credibility of the actual organic agriculture industry. No government, no better business bureau, no consumer lobby has yet been able to bring order to the chaos. As a producer of organic meats, I field the same questions daily from an understandably confused public.

Organic standards regulate an animal from the state of its mother prior to birth, through feeding and housing practices, right to the abattoir and packaging. Many say these regulations are too strict. By being so forceful, these rules have, until recently, made truly certifiable organic meats basically unavailable, playing right into the hands of those who capitalize on fraudulent claims. (Because they don’t follow any rules, they have access to great quantities of product and therefore can satisfy the quantity demanded by major retailers and restaurants.)

Consumers who want to eat organically should realize that meat products have far more room for contamination than vegetables. Let's get specific. To be honest, most meats grown in Ontario are not terrible to begin with. They may not be organic but they are still fairly free from growth hormones (BST is still illegal here). However, opportunist marketers have found that negative terms such as hormone-free and chemical-free are far and away better selling tactics, capitalizing more on consumer fear than the more complex but positive organic. But the fact is that most of these negatives are nothing special in meats raised in Ontario where the average size of herd is just too small for most farmers to be bothered to use growth hormones. Most of the "natural" meats sold in specialty quasi-organic meat shops, even if they deserve their hormone-free label, are absolutely no better than what you’d get almost anywhere else.

But certified organic is different.

Like most conventional lamb producers, we began with a small flock. It would have been far more economical to buy in our feeds just like everybody else. But we couldn’t find any organic feed at that time, so we had to produce our own. That meant buying a variety of tractors, complete lines of haying equipment, a grain combine, and a plethora of tillage and planting equipment – all used and requiring frequent repairs.

This week we are preparing for the delivery of new chicks. To feed them, we have hulless oats, barley and rye (a poor feed grown mostly as an anti-soil- erosion cover crop) that we grew ourselves. Certified organic soybeans and wheat have been shipped from the other side of the province as none was available nearby. Tomorrow all of this gets trucked to our local Co-op, who must completely clean out their grinding and mixing plant from chemical crops in order to process this into a chicken feed that will be organic.

Feed is the greatest hurdle. All organic feed must be grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on land cleansed of these products for at least three years. Current organic purchased feed prices range upwards to two and a half times the price of conventional.

Sheep are relatively easy to raise. Even so, our farming practices must be top-notch to avoid the reliance on products that have greatly simplified life for the chemical farmer. For example, parasitic worms are always a serious problem for grazing animals. The chemical farmer’s basic weapon these days is a potent systemic product called Ivomectin which does the job rather well, but is not allowed under organic guidelines. Now rest assured, it is not the desire of the guidelines to totally restrict organic farmers from using anything in this regard, thereby resulting in sickly, worm-ridden animals. We are allowed to use an older, less potent wormer, but it requires more critical pasture management practices in order to be effective. In a really well-managed flock, observing the life cycle of the worms and rotating pasture can eventually eradicate worms from the flock so that in most years no wormer is needed at all. This type of management is available to chemical farmers as well, of course!

And animals do get sick. With the heavy milking demands of producing ewes, mastitis can be a problem. Antibiotics can nip it in the bud, but a treated ewe, as well as her nursing lambs, can no longer be sold as organic, resulting in both lost profits and a real management headache.

Beef and pork present even greater management challenges with the added problem for small farmers with limited marketing of just what to do with the large quantities of meat produced. With poultry, there are special concerns and further confusion. There seems to be some range of interpretation as to the housing requirements. It is not specifically stated that the birds must be free-range, only that they receive a certain amount of direct sunlight and that they be floor-raised, not caged. One very large producer punched holes in his roof for skylights, which at first met the requirements without question. But I know one OCIA inspector who had great difficulty with another large organic feather-trade grower over this issue, to the point of almost pulling certification.

Let’s play devil’s advocate and try to understand 'free range' from a bird’s perspective. The birds definitely have more fun and exercise, but they are at greater risk from raccoons, foxes, coyotes, dogs, and hawks. Also, as anyone who has spent time on a small farm with a free-range flock will know, those birds will get anywhere and everywhere. In my early days, I saw birds laying eggs in my car, or trying to take a bath in the oil pan while we were changing the oil on a tractor.

There is a definite consumer reason to prefer free range. Birds are principally carnivorous. In addition to adding nutritional value, all those grasshoppers, worms and grubs, plus the fresh green grasses, make our eggs and poultry meats taste unquestionably better. Our solution is pasturing with an extensive and expensive fencing system totalling four acres of spring-water- irrigated range. The birds are free range; there is just a limit to their freedom.

Finally, we come to the end of the line, the abattoir/butcher/processor. To date, a full range abattoir, certified by one of the organic bodies, simply does not exist in Ontario, though one will soon be on line. So for all the effort, your animals may be certified organic, but not your meat. Actually this is not really a big deal. Federal and provincial law complements and overrides most of what is found in the organic rule book. For instance, that purple stamp the government inspector applies to each carcass is definitely not organic, but it is the law. (The butcher can, however, cut it off.)

Poultry has further difficulties with regard to processing. It must be cooled, usually in water. That water must be uncontaminated from non-organic birds – no small undertaking for a large packing plant. We prefer to chill with air rather than water, not only because of ease in complying with organic regulations but also because the birds dress out better without taking on extra water.

While difficult, there is a great opportunity to educate consumers and take over a lion’s share of the "natural meat" market with an honest organically grown product. A group of farmers in Ontario’s Northumberland/Peterborough area is poised to give it a try. Joining forces are organic livestock producers, a major cash cropper (feed) and a local abattoir willing to become certified and also to help in some of the value-added processing such as vacuum sealing, nitrite-free bacon and hams, and organic hot dogs. A major organic baker can participate in products like meat pies and frozen quiches.

While we feel there will be some sympathy towards our efforts to get more product on line, there is a major shortage of organic feed and the price of importing is astounding.

There will be great pains as the organic meat industry balances supply and demand and takes on political change. It will take a tremendous amount of cooperation, and a desire on the part of consumers, restauranteurs and retailers to demand an honest product equal to the desire of our certified organic farmers to produce that very same honest product.

 

Kenneth Solway is a classical musician/writer turned farmer some ten years ago. Chestnut Hill Farm, where he farms along with wife Susie and seven-year-old Jesse, is located high in the spring-fed hills of Northumberland County. As well as organizer of this organic meats project, he is co-president of THE Organic Farmer’s Market in Toronto.

 

 

Copyright 1995. Kenneth Solway

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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