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Over the years, there has been an increased demand for organically or naturally produced poultry products mostly due to the perception that these products are safer, tastier and healthier. In the United States, organic poultry broiler production increased from 1.9 million birds in 2000 to more than 10.4 million in 2005, while organic layer production increased from 1.1 million in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2005. More recent data show that organic broiler chicken sales rose in 2017 by 78% to $750 million, making it the largest growing market in the organic sector. There has also been an increase in the number of persons wanting to grow their own flocks in a more natural way. It is clear that there is a lot of misinformation about what is considered “organic poultry” and whether or not it is different from “natural poultry” and “pasture poultry”. To add to the confusion is the “new” line of poultry production, “Antibiotic Free (ABF),” or “Raised Without Antibiotic (RWA).”

Breaking It Down

“Organic Poultry” is not the same as “Natural Poultry.” Based on the guidelines of the National Organic Program, poultry produced under organic standards should be raised without synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and mammalian by-products in the feed. Only organic and non-genetically modified feed ingredients are allowed for organic poultry production. Pre-biotics, pro-biotics and vaccines are allowed to replace antibiotic growth promoters. Birds organically raised should have unrestricted access to the outdoors for exercise, fresh air and sunlight, except during inclement weather. To date, there has been one certified organic hatchery in the US; therefore, non-organic chicks must be managed and grown under organic conditions after the second day of hatch. Natural poultry are not subject to strict standards of organic poultry; however, they must meet the standards of not using growth promoters and should never be fed animal by-products. Natural poultry also should not be administered antibiotics except for ionophores used for coccidiosis control. Pasture raised or Free Range, refers to birds that have been grown outdoors. They are exposed to fresh air, grass and insects, a more natural environment. So where does ABF fall in this conundrum? Based on the USDA-FSIS standards, ABF chickens have never been given antibiotics, including in the eggs. This differs from organic chickens as chicken grown organically can receive antibiotics in the eggs and during the first day of life of the chicks, they become “drug-free” the day after hatching. Raised without antibiotics (RWA) means that no antibiotics was given in their feed, water, or injection including no ionophores during the birds’ life. These forms of poultry production present challenges as they are inefficient, expensive and presents challenges to keep the birds healthy. Overall from a sustainability point of view, none of these forms of poultry production systems can address all the sustainability issues as each has its own set of drawbacks would need to be carefully considered.

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