Scientists say organic chicken is no healthier than conventionally raised, but it is less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Joyce Newman, our expert on organic food and green product labels, weighs in on the latest research.
When you buy chicken with the “USDA Organic” label, it’s supposed to mean that the chicken was fed a vegetarian diet with feed produced without genetically modified organisms or toxic synthetic pesticides. The chickens are not fed back other chicken parts—that’s prohibited according to the federal government’s organic standards. The rules also prohibit dosing chickens with antibiotics after the first day of life.
But according to recent tests, these organic standards still leave a lot to be desired, and even if you buy organic chicken, using safety precautions when you shop and prepare it are vital to avoid illness-causing bacteria such the fecal contaminants enterococcus and E.coli.
Tests reported in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine, found that raw chicken breasts labeled “No Antibiotics” or “Organic” still contained “worrisome amounts” of these bacteria. The tests included 252 samples from conventionally produced chickens and 64 from brands that use no antibiotics in raising chickens, including 24 organic samples.
The findings in the Consumer Reports test aren’t unique. Actually they are reinforced by similar findings by the federal government, which monitors retail meat and poultry through its National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System.
The truth is that National Organic Program needs to eliminate certain giant loopholes, such as allowing antibiotics to be used in organic chicken eggs up until the first day of life. Also, the rules for access to the outdoors need to be strengthened. Currently, the rules don’t specify the size of the outdoor area, the size of the door leading there, or the amount of time the chickens birds should spend outdoors. So a lot of chickens that are labeled “organic” really aren’t pecking around happily in pastures all day long as you might expect. The same is true for organic turkey, which we covered in a previous post.
Unfortunately, recent tests do not find any major national organic brand that contains fewer bacteria. But you can shop online or at some local chicken farms where they voluntarily practice sustainable, organic methods. For example, White Oak Pastures Farm in Georgia has four animal welfare certifications in addition to being the largest USDA certified organic farm in Georgia.
White Oak goes way beyond the regular USDA organic standards, using only sun, soil, and rain to grow organic sweet grasses for the animals to eat. According to the website, “The cows graze the grass, the sheep eat the weeds, and the chickens peck at the grubs and insects. All three species naturally fertilize the land, and our soil is again a living organic medium that teems with life.”
When shopping, you can look for companies like White Oak Farms and products that are backed by meaningful labels including “Animal Welfare Approved,” which is “the only verified label requiring that animals are pasture-raised,” according to Consumer Reports.
Avoid chicken products with labels such as “natural,” “free range,” “cage free,” and “no hormones” as these terms are basically unregulated with no standards or inspections to back them up.
Equally important no matter what organic chicken you buy, you should follow safe handling and cooking steps that are recommended by the FDA and USDA.
• In the store, pick up chicken last so that it isn’t sitting around in your shopping cart for long. And be sure to use a separate plastic bag to cover the packages keeping them separated from your other groceries.
• At home, to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen get two cutting boards and use one just for raw poultry and meat.
• Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly after opening the packages and every time you touch raw meat, frozen or fresh.
• Don’t wash off the chicken – it can further spread the bacteria in the sink and counters
Use a meat thermometer to make sure the chicken is cooked internally to 165 degrees F.
• Even if you keep your kitchen very clean, you could still be exposed to illness-causing bacteria if you don’t cook the chicken to an internal temperature of 165°
For more information
See a list of all of the brands tested, including those with a “No Antibiotics” or “Organic” label.
—Joyce H. Newman
Joyce H. Newman, a Garden Variety contributing writer, covers gardening topics, food matters and environmental issues. The former editor of Consumer Reports GreenerChoices.org, which evaluates environmental claims on green product labels, she holds a certificate in horticulture from the New York Botanical Garden.