Organics in the News

There’s a synthetic in my organic chicken
It has been three years since the exception was made to allow synthetic methionine in organic poultry production. As the deadline on usage nears, it seems little has changed in the world of organic poultry. This has led some to question whether it ever will, others to ask if it even should, and just about everyone to throw up their hands in frustration

By Cara Hungerford

April 1, 2005: It was lunchtime at Organic Valley Family of Farms, about a week before the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) would decide on the petition to extend the allowance of synthetic methionine in poultry production. A couple of colleagues from New Farm and I had been treated to a meal of pork with mushrooms, mashed potatoes and carrots, mixed green salad and Key lime pie and the company of Organic Valley C-E-I-E-O (his term) George Siemon, Producer Pool Director Tedd Heilmann, and special projects guru David Bruce at the organic co-op’s headquarters in La Farge, Wisconsin. Knowing that, along with Tyson Foods, Organic Valley was one of two signers of a petition to continue the allowance of synthetic methionine in organic poultry production, I was curious to field their thoughts on the synthetics debate once again arising in the organic community. But when I brought up the petition, I was met with a chorus of sighs and more than a few eyes rolls. I believe they have discussed this before.

“[They] are making a lot out of a small compromise,” Seimon said as he finished his glass of organic milk. “I don’t understand what the big deal is. There are tons of synthetics your life; now we are saying none in animals?”

Bruce backed this opinion in a follow-up interview. “Simply the fact that it’s a synthetic sets off a button. People just get freaked out by ‘synthetic,’” he said. “I think people equate ‘synthetic’ with ‘chemical’—it’s not.”

Not everyone would agree, including the National Organic Program (NOP), the government entity (under USDA) that oversees the federal organic standards. NOP only approved a temporary allowance of the synthetic until a suitable natural alternative could be found. The synthesized version of methionine, a sulfur-based essential amino acid, was added to the NOP’s National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock production in 2001, only after organic poultry producers learned the synthetic had been part of the organic feed mixes they were using. This essential amino acid vital to proper cell growth is not produced by the body and must be obtained through diet. Methionine deficiency can lead to curled toes, bare spots and improper feathering. Without the synthetic supplement, the poultry ration (a simple corn-soybean blend) does not provide enough methionine. The late revelation coupled with a lack of alternatives and the NOSB’s desire not to kill the developing organic market bought chicken producers a three-year grace period during which time they promised to seek an alternative. The sun sets on the exception in October and, while there is not consensus as to why, most would argue organic poultry production is not ready to let go of its crutch.

Some believe it was producers’slow to call to action that has created the need for more time. “I don’t think the feed producers and the poultry producers used the three years wisely,” said Eric Sideman, who was Chair of the NOSB livestock committee during the original methionine debate. “I think they are really going to suffer if we just drop it, because they haven’t done their homework.”

Researchers and industry players say they have been looking for alternative sources. “As an industry we have gone through the trials, and we see the possibilities are out there,” Bruce said in defense of the extension, “Now we just need to do the research.”

For the last year, Bruce and Jim Pierce, Organic Valley’s certification czar, along with researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Arkansas, have been part of a methionine task force searching for alternatives. There have been numerous trips to Europe, where they are also struggling to find a way to get enough methionine into the poultry diet, but the farm visits for the most part have provided few answers. The OV staff reports that many of the chickens they saw on these visits were thin and scraggly. The European Union, who has been allowing organic poultry producers to use up to 20-percent conventional feed in place of the synthetic, will transition to 100-percent organic feed this year.

American poultry producers have also been doing work on feed alternatives. Sideman, who is also director of technical services for Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, has been raising chickens for 25 years; 5 without using synthetic methionine.

Sideman questioned the synthetic’s place in organics four years ago. “I think supplements should be used to balance the feed, to add vitamins and minerals,” he said, “Amino acids are the building blocks, and I think these building blocks should be coming from food.”

To meet his chickens’ methionine requirements without using supplements, Sideman adds organic whole wheat, organic whole oats, alfalfa meal, sunflower meal, fish meal and limestone to an organic corn-soy meal base. He also suggests sesame or safflower as possible alternatives.

Jeff Mattocks, a Nutritional consultant for the Fertrell Company, an organic feed and fertilizer supplier, says he tried to mix a synthetic free poultry ration that still met methionine needs but shifted the delicate amino acid balance too far in the other direction and created a feed that was deficient in lysine, another essential amino acid. Despite his failure, Mattocks, who is also President of the American Pasture Poultry Producers Association, has seen anecdotal evidence of poultry producers that were able to raise healthy birds without the supplement. One producer he worked with in New York had success direct feeding microbials and using a protein supplement. The New Yorker was using Maryland crab as his protein source, but Mattocks says fish meal would also work. He cautions against using solely fish, though, because the high oil content of the fish can give the chicken an off flavor. His preference is for a fish-crab meal mix.

While many other alternatives have been dismissed as too costly, the main drawback to these additives is availability. “They are competitive price alternatives if we could find them,” Mattocks says of the aquatic proteins, “But if a Tyson or a BC Natural were to use [these alternatives], there wouldn’t be enough for everyone else to do this.”

Sesame, sunflower and safflower suffer from a similar lack of supply. According to the Economic Research Service’s survey of U.S. organic production in 1997, 10,894 acres were planted in sunflower. All others oilseeds combined totaled just an additional 12,487 acres, compared to 42,000 acres in corn and 82,000 in soy. While the NOP clarification on aquatics will increase the availability of these options until a market for oilseeds makes itself known, supply will continue to be inadequate.

Sideman says requirements can also be met by shifting the balance of amino acids, easily achieved by shifting the balance of the ration. The standard poultry feed ration is currently 90-percent corn meal and 10-percect soy meal. At this ratio chickens achieve maximum feed efficiency, meaning they eat no more than is necessary for optimal health and they create no excess waste. But the ration is low in methionine. If the ration was rebalanced at 70/30 corn to soybean, methionine requirements could be met without needing a synthetic. This solution has been met with resistance because it creates an inefficiency in feed uptake, which results in additional feed, longer growth time, and more manure—which all add up to higher production costs.

“It’s a cost issue, but they will never say it,” says Sideman, explaining that additional manure presents a big problem for large-scale producers who often do not have fields on which to spread the waste and have to pay to have it hauled off-farm.

Siemon was candid in our discussion that cost does indeed play a part. With organic chicken already commanding twice the price of conventional, he worries about how much more the market will support. Siemon says he knows that you are supposed to stay away from the cost question; but when it costs $1.60 a pound for potato protein (a methionine-rich alternative the task force is investigating) compared to $0.16 a pound for chicken feed, he says, price inevitably becomes a concern. Despite doubts that it will amount to a financially viable solution, the task force is moving forward with trials using potato protein.

Another option to feed additives is pasture access. Birds that have access to pasture do not need additional methionine during the growth and finishing phases, reports Joe Moritz, assistant professor of poultry production at West Virginia University. Moritz who believes pasture access helps a bird reach optimum health has conducted a two-year experiment looking at the need for methionine supplements during the growing phase. Raising 300 birds at a time, fifteen per 20-foot by 30-foot outdoor paddock, the researchers found they could grow healthy chickens without using synthetic methionine—as long as the birds had adequate access to pasture.

“As far as our work is showing, let’s take the methionine out,” says Moritz with regard to the growing phase. The researchers relied on supplements for the demanding starter phase, and Moritz admits more work needs to be done before he can reliably say pasture poultry could be raised entirely without synthetic methionine.

With no pasture requirement outlined in the organic rule (it says only outdoor access must be made available for large operations this sometimes means nothing more than a dirt strip), the pasture access Moritz recommends would mark a major change for some producers. [Editor’s note: the pasture requirement currently being discussed by the NOSB is for ruminants only and will not apply to poultry producers]. Moritz admits his work tends to favor small farmers over larger commercial operations, “To an industry person this doesn’t address a practical solution to current industry problems. Having pasture access in the growing phase does not address methionine need in the starter phase and providing adequate pasture access in a commercial operation may be difficult.”

But he is unapologetic, raising the question: “What should organic production be? Should organic production even be commercialized? Is it really organic by changing the feed and providing limited outdoor access?”

Politics aside, Moritz sees pasture as a real opportunity for small farmers to offer a value-added product, one that is raised without synthetics--especially if pasture access was coupled with a slow-growing broiler whose initial methionine requirements are lower.

Anne Fanatico, a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, has been working with these slow-growing and medium-growing birds as an alternative to synthetic methionine. According to Fanatico, because these birds have a less-muscled physique, they require less methionine—especially during the critical starter phase.

Once popular in poultry production, years of increased market competition, growing operation size and a shift in taste preferences (some say conditioned by what’s commercially available), the American supply of commercial varieties of slow-growing broilers has all but disappeared. According to Fanatico, there are only two commercial suppliers of slow-growing birds in the U.S. American poultry producers, both conventional and organic, grow almost exclusively the fast-growing Cornish-cross, a breed that can reach market weight in less than five weeks.

Slow- and medium-growth birds are much more popular in Europe, where the organic program requires a minimum of 81 days before the bird can be butchered for market. “If you raised a fast-growth chicken for 81 days, you’d have a turkey,” says Fanatico. The U.S. program does not contain such a requirement, a fact Fanatico can’t explain. “It is a more natural style of growth, and you would think that that’s more healthy.”

Purchasing information

S & G Poultry Company
P.O. Box 2363
Clanton, AL 35046
Danny Eiland also sells slow-growing broilers A new hatchery in Manitoba, CA offers some of the European slow-growing genetics

Slow-growing birds have additional benefits in that they are a heartier bird with fewer heart, leg and metabolic problems and a better immune system. But they cost more to raise, the yield is not as high, and the food efficiency is not as good as with fast-growing birds. In a fast-growing breed, feed is converted at a 2-to-1 ratio, or 2 pounds of feed for every pound of grain. For a slow-growing bird, that ratio is 3 to 1. The lack of commercially available breeds also presents a problem, as heritage breeds often do not produce the meaty bird popular in the U.S.

The birds Fanatico is working on are closer in terms of build and texture to what is currently found in the conventional marketplace. “It’s a little more elongated, but it’s not a skinny chicken,” Fanatico says of her slow-growing breed.

In Fanatico’s experience, the market is ready for the slow-growing breed. “I would say it’s a viable solution at this point if companies wanted to do it,” she says. Fanatico looks to small farmers to act as the pioneers and push the change and find the market, citing that they have played this role in the past and—despite the seeming lack of supply—the situation is primed for them to do it again. “The demand is going to meet supply,” she says. “[The slow-growing breed] is out right now for small farmers to try.”

In the long run, Fanatico feels this is going to be where the slow growing chickens reside anyway. “The slow-growing bird is going to be a specialty product,” she says. “It is going to be hard for the larger producer to make the transition.”

While slow-growing birds may not be the answer to the synthetic methionine question, Fanatico is confident that if producers want to keep using a fast-growing breeds they will find an answer, “With all the progress we’ve made with science, if they want to use a fast-growing bird, they will find a solution,” she says.

Others are not so confident, like Fertrell’s Mattocks, who feels the growing demand for organic poultry is going to make any of these solutions a problem. “I don’t ever, ever see it going away,” he says. Instead of rehashing the debate every three years, he recommends setting a limit on usage now and leaving the synthetic permanently on the list. Others, like Fanatico and Sideman, feel it is just a matter of time—time to do more research and develop more organic sources for feed substitutes.

The solutions are out there, says Fanatico, but the current lack of available organic alternatives and proper feed formulations may make an extension necessary.

Heilmann agrees. “We are truly working to look for an answer here. There has been no golden answer, but it is not for a lack of looking.”

And maybe the golden answer is the key to this whole debate. Solutions are out there. Chickens can be raised organically without synthetic methionine, but it can’t be done without sacrificing production levels and/or increasing costs, and it can’t be done without fundamentally changing the system.

“I think we are going to have to have major changes—and again I question the motives of everyone who opposes these changes,” says Moritz.

Moritz, whose background is in conventional poultry production, seems to see both sides of the story and finds himself a victim of the very quandary he describes. “Organic is interesting,” he says after convincingly arguing for an entirely small-farm-based organic poultry sector and leeway to allow commercial growers to meet growing consumer demands. “Are you improving the health of the bird or the production?”

“Organic is a definition that is manmade,” says Sideman, “Someone could easily define organic to include synthetic methionine.” So what is Sideman’s definition of organic? “It is a system that produces healthy food and protects the environment.”

It is funny how the belief in the same twelve words can illicit such drastic interpretations.

“The bottom line is by giving chickens just a little methionine you are significantly promoting health, immunity and welfare and matching the dietary needs to a specific breed,” Bruce writes in a follow-up email. “To mandate its exclusion does nothing to further the organic integrity of the product.”

With the NOSB recently announcing its support of the petition for continued allowance and no real solution anywhere in sight, it is an integrity they will likely have many more years to debate.