What does “Organic” really mean? (Part 2 – Meats, Dairy and Seafood)

In my last post, I talked about what “certified organic” means for fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables, and wine. I started with those foods because they’re the least processed foods. That means that there’s the least amount of room for creativity in terms of how to produce them as cheaply as possible while still maintaining the organic seal on the label. Now I’m going to turn to more complex foods – meats, eggs, dairy products and seafood.

Meats & Eggs

The organic standard has historically said that animals that are used to produce organic milk, meat and eggs be fed 100% organic feed, be vaccinated, have access to the outdoors and not be given growth hormones or antibiotics. What the organic standard did *not* say, however, is the following:

  • that ruminants (cows, sheep/lamb, goats, etc) be fed any grass. If you’re concerned about nutrition, then this is a really big oversight. Here is a good summary of why grass-fed meat is nutritionally superior.
  • that the animals actually go out to pasture. Merely opening a gate or trap door to a tiny courtyard (“pasture”) does not mean animals ever go through the door. By offering them and all-you-can-eat buffet of sweet-tasting grain and corn inside the shed, they usually choose never to go outside. If you want specific examples in the egg industry, Cornucopia Institute did a fantastic investigative piece that’s available here.

The good news is that the organic livestock regulation was amended in 2010 so that starting in late 2011, the following new guidelines are in effect, “Ruminants must be out on pasture for the entire grazing season, but for not less than 120 days. These animals must also receive at least 30 percent of their feed, or dry matter intake (DMI), from pasture,” meaning that 30% “must be grazed from vegetation rooted in the pasture or its residual forage.” This means that organic cattle will actually have to spend at least 4 months per year outdoors (versus none in the past) and they will start getting a decent portion of their nutrients from grass and other fresh growing vegetation in addition to the grain, corn and hay that they have been fed in the past.

This is a huge change and great example of how consumer advocacy groups can be successful in influencing government regulations. It means that the organic label on meats and dairy means a lot more now than in past years.

How are the industrial meat and dairy producers responding? Time will tell, but you may have noticed a recent change in the price and availability of organic meat and milk.  The New York Times even wrote about it, yet they didn’t cite the new regulations as a factor (I think it is though). You may have also noticed a sudden increase in meats labeled as “grass fed.”  Just a word of caution though: according to the USDA, although “grass-fed” means that the animal should get the majority of its nutrients from grass, it does NOT limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. There’s also no verification process in place like there is for organically labeled meat, so you have to decide whether or not you want to trust the supplier.

So what kind of meat do I like best?  “Pasture-raised,” which I find in abundance at my local farmer’s market.  They usually are not labeled “organic” because the small producers I buy from can’t afford the cost of certification, but I feel more comfortable knowing that I can visit their farms myself and discuss with them their specific livestock management practices.

Milk and Dairy Products

The organic standard for dairy animals is almost the same as for animals used for meats and eggs. One difference, however, is that the regulation states that dairy animals be managed organically “for at least 12 months.” I interpret that to mean that organic milking cows are not necessarily raised organically for their entire lives, which is a little disconcerting.

My biggest issue with organic milk, however, is that in order to be labeled as “organic,” it must be pasteurized. There’s a lot of media debate right now about how safe and beneficial raw (unpasteurized) milk really is. I’ve done more research on this topic than probably any other food/nutrition-related topic and I’m convinced that raw milk from pasture-raised cows (NOT industrially raised feedlot cows!) is FAR superior to any pasteurized milk. A great source of information on this, complete with links to many different studies about the health benefits and safety of raw milk, is available here: http://www.realmilk.com/rawmilkoverview.html.

Regardless of your views on the pasteurization debate, I do think that the new pasture regulations for Organic livestock, which I referenced above, are a step in the right direction. Interestingly, all the recent media coverage around the recent price spike for organic milk, like this article from the Wall Street Journal, never mentions the new organic regulations as the cause. Personally I think it’s a major factor.


Oddly enough, there is no organic standard for seafood in the US, but it’s in the works. You may still come across seafood labeled as organic on sushi menus or some seafood markets. That’s because the US imports seafood that’s been certified as organic by other countries.  Our lack of a standard makes it hard to regulate those imported foods (although California has banned the use of the term organic for any seafood sold in the state).

It will be interesting to see what the US regulations end up saying. Don’t hold your breath that wild seafood will ever qualify for the certification though. Counter-intuitive, you say? After all, what could be more natural, organic or nutritious than fish caught in the wild? Good question. The Aquatic Animal Task Force told the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) that “wild aquatic animals do not reflect the degree of producer management, continuous oversight, and discretionary decisionmaking that are characteristic of an organic system.” In my opinion, this statement gets to the heart of the problem with organic certification in this country.  It demonstrates that it has absolutely nothing to do with measuring the healthfulness or naturalness of the end product.  Instead, it’s all about controlling the inputs, like medications administered and what the fish eats, which you can only control if the animal/fish is raised in a closed environment and fed a vegetarian diet.

Let’s look at salmon, one of the most popular farmed fish and likely one of the first to be addressed by the organic certification standard. In the wild, their diet includes plenty of shrimp and krill, which get their pink color from eating carotene-rich algae. This is why salmon are pink – they get their color from their food. Sockeye salmon eat higher percentages of shrimp and krill, which is why they are darker red than king and coho salmon, which eat more white-fleshed fish and squid.

What makes farm-raised salmon pink? Dye. Otherwise they would be grey. What will “organic” salmon be fed after the organic standard comes out? I’d be willing to bet that it’s not much different than farmed salmon today – meaning dyed grain, corn and/or soy-derived ingredients (but organic, of course, and with ‘natural food coloring added’!), which produce fish that are unnaturally high in omega-6 fatty acids (which Americans do not need more of) and woefully low in healthful omega-3 fatty acids compared to wild salmon. In fact, they will probably be even lower in omega-3’s because non-organic farmed salmon today is given some fish meal and fish oil, but since these ingredients come from the wild, they’re not likely to be approved for organic use.

Based on everything I’ve read to-date on the subject of organic standards for aquaculture, I’m not optimistic that organic certification for seafood will be a useful barometer of healthfulness, but let’s wait and see what actually happens.

In my next post, I’ll talk about what organic means for packaged, processed and multi-ingredient foods.

See this post and others like it here: FoodRenegade, Healthy Home Economist.