The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Does “organic” mean “outside” for animals?

February 8, 2014

The short answer: Yes.

The important caveat:  Not necessarily outside all the time, and not necessarily the kind of “outside” you might expect.

veal calvesTo know exactly what kind of animal farming you’re supporting when you choose certified organic meat — or to simply impress people at cocktail parties (or barn dances) — read on… because all of us probably have a more pastoral image of organic agriculture than what might actually be the case.

The bottom line: all certified organic animals must have access to the outdoors, at all times of the year. Winter, spring, summer, fall, the barn doors must open at least once a day, weather permitting. Whether the animals actually go outside is up to them, but the doors must open.

Are they open for long, you might ask?  The federal organic standards don’t require a minimum; it might be an hour, it might be all day. In this sense (and this sense only), the organic label is similar to the free-range label: both indicate  outdoor access, but you can’t be sure how long that access is provided unless you talk to the farmer or food company. (I’ve found that most small-scale organic farmers let their animals outside all day, even all the time, if weather conditions are right.)

The organic standards also don’t require a minimum amount of space for an animal, either indoors or outdoors; animals could be quite cramped — or not cramped at all.  The National Organic Standards Board has issued recommended space requirements (among them: 2 square ft. per laying hen), but local certifying agencies (which audit farms to give them the “certified organic” stamp of approval) are free to either hold farms to the recommended space requirements or not.

All certified organic farmers, however, must establish living conditions that “accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals,” as the organic standards say. (What those “natural behaviors” are is up to the local certifying agency.) Again, the small-scale organic farmers I know would never dream of cramping their animals — but remember that many large-scale farms are certified organic, too, and size can often lead to economic efficiencies that reduce space for animals.

Arizona rangeBeyond space and outdoor access, the federal organic standards get a little complicated, depending on the animal. For cows, sheep, and goats, outdoor access must include pasture during the grazing season – which, in the U.S., is at least 120 days. This is because ruminants — four-stomached animals that evolved to eat grass — stay healthier on pasture. Certified organic ruminants must have a certain percentage of their feed come from grazed pasture during this time, although there’s an exception for cattle under 6 months (who are at greater risk for parasites if not on their mother’s milk) and for cattle in the last four months of their lives (who might be “finished” on grain).

And yet, certified organic pigs and poultry are not required to have pasture, even though they might thrive on it; their outdoor space need only be an enclosed area, and could be on dirt or concrete. But again (another caveat!), many certified organic farmers do pasture their poultry and pigs, they’re just not required to.

Knowing all this, it’s clear that the federal organic standards — which keep antibiotics, pesticides, and GMO’s out of meat, foster ecological land management, and encourage preventive health — don’t require very much when it comes to outdoor access or space for animals. Keep this in mind if outdoor access for animals is important to you as a meat eater (and it may not be — a number of farm organizations, including Certified Humane, feel it’s possible to raise animals humanely in indoor-only conditions).

But again, many organic farmers — those who are true to the original spirit of organic farming — go way beyond the minimum requirements in the federal organic standards; they pasture their animals, or keep them in spacious barns. As usual when choosing humanely raised meat, you need to look beyond the label and ask questions to find out more.

Thanks to the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont for clarifying some of this info.


What do meat labels mean?

What do meat labels mean?