Tell the NOSB: Organic Chickens Need Pasture, Not Synthetic Growth-Promoters!
Not all organic chickens and eggs are created equal.
The best organic farmers raise their meat chickens and egg-laying hens on pasture, in compliance with organic rules that require animals to spend time outdoors in the sunshine. Chickens raised outdoors on pasture eat a natural diet of insects and worms, grasses and other greens, supplemented with organic feed. This diet provides them with a sufficient source of methionine, critical to their health.
But the biggest organic producers don’t follow the rules. They confine their chickens indoors, just like the factory farms do, or provide outdoor access but with no access to pasture—both of which deprive the birds of a natural diet that would include methionine. The big producers who supplement their birds’ diets with synthetic methionine say they need the supplement in order to keep their birds healthy—a justification they wouldn’t need if they raised their birds on pasture, and/or supplemented with organic alternatives.
But the real reason the big organic poultry farms use synthetic methionine is because it acts as a growth-promoter. This allows the farms to squeak by with an “organic” label when in fact their operations, and products, are far more similar to those of the non-organic factory farms.
TAKE ACTION! Tell the National Organic Standards Board: No more synthetic methionine! Organic chickens need pasture, not this synthetic growth promoter! Please sign our petition and add your own comments, especially if you’ve found a source of pasture-raised eggs and chicken that you want to crow about!
What is synthetic methionine?
Synthetic methionine is a sulfur-based essential amino acid that promotes increased weight gain in meat chickens (broilers), and increased egg production in laying hens. It also prevents conditions such as curled toes, improper feathering (methionine is a major component of feathers) and increased feather pecking (which can quickly lead to cannibalism in flocks)—conditions that occur when chickens are deficient in natural, non-synthetic methionine.
Natural methionine is an essential amino acid, which means it is not produced by the body and must be obtained through diet.
Synthetic methionine is routinely fed to conventional poultry raised in factory farms, or as the industry calls them, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). CAFO chickens are deficient in methionine because they spend their entire lives indoors, deprived of a natural diet of grubs and insects and plants that provide a natural source of methionine.
It’s also fed to chickens on organic poultry farms that violate organic standards by confining their chickens indoors. These producers justify the use of synthetic methionine as a means of keeping the birds healthy—when in fact, their primary motivation is to rely on synthetic methionine as a growth promoter.
Large organic poultry producers should be required to provide pasture access for their flocks. But unfortunately, the National Organic Program (NOP) doesn’t enforce this rule.
We believe all organic poultry operations should be required to follow the rules for outdoor and pasture access. One way to move them in that direction is to stop allowing them to rely on synthetic methionine, which has no place in organics.
Why is synthetic methionine allowed in organic?
Under the first National Organic Program (NOP) rules (2000), synthetic methionine was prohibited.
The first exemption was approved in 2001, primarily because organic poultry farmers couldn’t find organic feed that didn’t contain synthetic methionine as an additive.
Under the Organic Foods Production Act, synthetic substances like methionine can only be approved for 5 years at a time and are intended to be phased out (sunsetted) to encourage the industry to constantly improve organic integrity. But synthetic methionine was relisted by the NOSB in 2005 and again in 2008.
In 2010, the NOSB finally recommended that the amounts of synthetic methionine in organic chicken feed be stepped down to two tons-per-pound for laying and broiler chickens, and three tons-per-pound for turkeys and all other poultry, as of October 1, 2012.
But in 2011, the organic poultry industry once again petitioned the NOSB to increase the allowed levels of synthetic methionine in organic poultry feed. That’s the petition the NOSB will consider at the upcoming NOSB meeting, April 27 – April 30, in La Jolla, Caif.
So, here we are, 14 years later, still talking about the need to get synthetic methionine out of organic. But not doing it.
What are the human health risks associated with synthetic methionine?
Synthetic methionine animal productivity mainly by stimulating the production of a natural growth hormone (IGF-1) and a growth hormone receptor, enabling weight gain for broilers and increased egg production for laying hens.
There are no studies yet on the human health effects of eating poultry or eggs from synthetic methionine-fed chickens that have increased levels IGF-1. But the human concerns are similar to the concerns about using recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production. Researchers have found that high levels of IGF-1 in humans significantly increase the risks of colorectal, breast and prostate cancer.
According to the Cornucopia Institute, diets that contain or induce high levels of IGF-1 are linked to numerous degenerative illnesses, lowered longevity in animals and humans, and cancer.
What are the alternatives to synthetic methionine?
There are natural alternatives to synthetic methionine, which are used by small-scale organic poultry farms where the natural diet doesn’t contain high enough levels of methionine, or when long winters prevent foraging.
Maine organic chicken producer Eric Sideman (who was Chair of the NOSB livestock committee during the original methionine debate) told the author of an article published by the Rodale Institute that to meet his chickens’ methionine requirements without using supplements, he 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.
Some organic farmers have achieved promising results with high-methionine corn as a way to naturally increase methionine levels. Increasing soy (protein) ration percentages is another natural option.
Unless the NOSB hears loud and clear from consumers that poultry should be pastured, rather than confined, the widespread use of synthetic methionine and the controversy surrounding it will continue. It’s time for the NOSB to set a firm date for phasing out the use of synthetic methionine in organics.
Please sign our petition to the NOSB.