Why Eat Organic Meat?

By James A. Riddle
Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems, UMN


If ever an animal were a vegetarian, it is a cow. They are designed to eat forages. They are ruminants! It is totally unnatural to feed them animal by-products and manure, but that is exactly what high output industrial factory farms, especially dairy farms, are doing, since these are cheap sources of protein. Farmers, including organic farmers, that feed pasture, hay, silage, and grain concentrates are taking steps to minimize risks of BSE.

The Differences

There are significant differences between organic and industrial, non-organic meat production. To begin with, there is an absolute ban on the feeding of mammalian and poultry slaughter by-products to organic mammals and poultry. This contrasts with non-organic regulations, which still allow the feeding of cattle and other slaughter by-products to cattle and other livestock.

The FDA banned the feeding of cattle brain and spinal tissue to cattle in 1997, and have publicly stated that they will ban blood, poultry litter, and human food wastes, but they still allow the following materials to be fed to non-organic cattle:

None of the items listed above may be fed to organic cattle or other organic livestock.

Milk Replacer

Non-organic milk replacer commonly contains spray dried blood plasma and blood serum from cattle and hogs. The FDA is now moving to ban this practice. Research in Europe has shown that BSE can be transmitted by blood, which is why any U.S. citizen who has traveled to a country with BSE is prohibited from donating blood.

Most organic calves are fed organic whole milk. Milk replacer may only be used as an emergency supplement. If milk replacer is used, the NOP regulation requires that the milk replacer contain no non-milk products, no antibiotics, and no products from rBST treated animals.

Records and Traceability

Traceability is a fundamental requirement for organic certification. The National Organic Program regulation, in section 205.236.c, requires that all organic livestock operations must maintain records "sufficient to preserve the identity of all organically managed animals and edible and non-edible animal products produced on the operation." Section 205.103 further requires that all organic operations, including those with livestock, maintain records which "fully disclose all activities and transactions" and "demonstrate compliance with the Act and regulations."

This means that records kept by organic livestock producers must track all animals, including the source(s) of the animals; the sources and quantities of feed; all medications; and all products produced and sold. These records are reviewed at least annually by an inspector representing a USDA-accredited certification agency.

Inspection of Feed Mills

In order to produce organic livestock feed, feed mills must be inspected and certified. If they produce both organic and non-organic feed, they must implement procedures, documented with written records, to prevent the commingling of organic and non-organic feed. This includes steps to clean storage bins and mixing and bagging equipment prior to producing batches of organic feed. Organic feed mills also must prevent the contamination of organic feed with antibiotics, hormones, slaughter by-products, and insecticides which may be added to non-organic rations. They must also ensure that rodenticides and insecticides used in the facility do not contaminate organic feed.

Inspection of Slaughter Facilities

Organic beef must be slaughtered in slaughterhouses which are certified organic. As such, slaughterhouses must slaughter organic animals when all equipment is clean and empty. There must be no chance of commingling organic with non-organic meat, or contaminating organic meat with prohibited materials. Records must be maintained of all organic slaughter activities and steps taken to protect organic integrity. If a plant can prove that it can segregate organic animals and meat products and take all steps necessary to protect organic integrity, then it can be certified. It does not have to be dedicated to slaughtering only organic animals, however.

Testing for BSE

Nearly 36 million cattle were slaughtered in the United States in 2002, yet only less than 20,000 were tested for BSE. In the first 7 months of 2003 in Washington state, USDA tested no cattle for BSE. At Washington state's largest slaughterhouse and at two facilities owned by Tyson, there were no BSE tests in 2002 or 2003.

100% of cattle are tested in Japan. About 75% are tested in Germany and France. All cattle over 36 months are tested in U.K., yet only .05% of U.S. cattle are tested.

There are no rapid tests available in the U.S. Such tests are being used in other countries, including Japan, Italy, Germany, France, and the U.K. Tissue samples from the cow in WA state were sent to U.K. for confirmation, where results were known in a few hours.

When the cow in WA was slaughtered, its meat went to 8 states and Guam, and it was almost 2 weeks before test results were known. The meat was allowed to enter the human food supply while test results were still pending. That is standard procedure in the U.S.

BSE on Organic Farms?

There were several cases in Europe where cattle on organic farms were diagnosed with the disease. Upon further investigation, it was established that the cattle had not been born on the organic farms. They had been purchased from non-organic farms, and converted to organic production.

In the United States, organic cattle must be fed and managed organically their entire lives in order to be slaughtered for organic beef. In fact, a calf's mother must be fed and managed organically during the last third of the calf's gestation in order for the calf to be sold as organic slaughter stock. In the U.S., the only animals which can be converted from non-organic to organic production are dairy cattle, breeding stock, and animals which produce non-edible products, such as wool. If such animals are converted from non-organic to organic production, those animals can never be slaughtered for organic meat.

Health Risks?

Hundreds of people in the U.S. die each year of "sporadic Creutzfeld-Jakob" disease (CJD). New research in Europe, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, links a new form of BSE, found in "healthy" cows, to human cases of brain-wasting disease, CJD.

Consumer Choices

One clear option is to stop eating beef. While not a big beef eater, I do not advocate that position. If you are going to eat beef, eat smart. Avoid burger chains. Avoid ground beef, unless you know how the animals were raised and what they were fed. If you want ground beef, buy boneless roasts and have your butcher grind them or grind them yourself.

Know the farmers who raise your meat. Buy meat from farms which do not feed animal by-products, including organic farms. Shop at your local food coop. Look for local, grass fed meats at the farmers market. Ask your butcher where the meat comes from and how the animals were raised. Demand that country of origin labeling be implemented. Demand that the practice of feeding animal by-products to ruminants be strictly prohibited. After all, cows are vegetarians!

Over the past 24 years, James A. (Jim) Riddle has been an organic farmer, gardener, inspector, educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer. He was founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association, (IOIA), and co-author of the IFOAM/IOIA International Organic Inspection Manual. He has helped train hundreds of organic inspectors throughout the world. Jim serves on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Organic Advisory Task Force, and was instrumental in the passage of Minnesota's landmark organic certification cost-share program. Jim serves as vice-chair of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic agriculture policies and regulations. Jim holds degrees in biology and political science from Grinnell College, and works part time as an organic policy specialist for Rodale's www.newfarm.org. In 2003, Jim was appointed Endowed Chair of Agricultural Systems at the University of Minnesota.