You’ve seen it at the stores, in the deli aisle or in the frozen section. “Grown Organically” on packages of all kinds of meats. Beef, pork, chicken, even fish, all organic. And at least one time, even if it was just for a joke, you must have said “Of course it’s organic, it’s a living thing.” Organic literally means “relating to or obtained from living things”. If it was alive, it was organic. Grass is organic. So why the need to specify?
The branding behind “Organic Meat” is basically the same as saying “ethically raised.” Under USDA regulations, “Organic” means the animals have undergone no hormone injections, must eat naturally sourced and renewable feed and spend time outdoors and in open spaces. They have to be comfortable and happy as animals to be organic with no unnatural interruptions to their lives.
This means that, at an ethical level, the animals are being raised with the utmost care, and the price often reflects the amount of work and effort that takes to maintain. The ownership and management of the land for cows or pigs or whatever to live on and be as free as they can be is expensive. There are no shortcuts to organic farming. No synthetics or chemicals or pesticides that aren’t also natural. It’s just man and animal living together.
There are some benefits to it, but ultimately the science behind the nutrition value of organic vs. industrial meat is not fully conclusive. Factory farmed meat has its own ethical dilemmas and complications, and the inclusion of growth hormones and chemicals from pesticides and artificial feed does detract from the overall quality and health standards of the meat. Grass fed and naturally living cows also have higher antioxidants in their system, which get passed on to the consumers.
It’s not all good news, though. Just as every house in a neighborhood is different, or how every coffee shop even with the same brand is a little different, every farm is different and not all of them can, or choose to, try giving their livestock better lives.
Organic means no artificial injections, which also means no antibiotics. That may be good at a health conscious level for consumers, but it also means a higher potential for diseases to spread, and for the animals to suffer through the effects “organically”.
There is also the consideration of land usage and the carbon footprint related to organic and grass-fed animal raising. The amount of land that qualifies as “comfortable” for grazing animals to roam on is kind of dodgy to estimate. Even using more healthy and mild fertilizer to promote rapid crop growth to feed organic livestock will lead to inevitable pollution and runoff.
So going purely organic is not going to help the environment. The problems associated with farming and livestock and the impact they have on the planet are still there, and the ethics of treatment of animals varies on a case by case basis. There’s only so many ways an animal can be happy before it’s killed and made into meat.
The alternative is much less ethical, more cruel, and ultimately more stabilized in terms of its environmental impact. Even though it leads to awful conditions for the animals, factory farming takes up less space, uses less land for cultivating food as it can rely on cheap, synthetic feed alternatives, and the antibiotics and growth hormones promote fast and healthy growth with a trade-off in terms of low-potential toxicity from the presence of medicine.
That’s just for beef, but the argument holds true for all other manner of animal-based produce. Pigs are harder to sell in terms of organic produce, and haven’t found the same success organic beef has had to justify the cost differences. Many pig farms that attempt a free-range style to give pigs exercise show little to no variation in the end product from farms where pigs are kept immobile and isolated.
Chickens complicate the model even further. There are different variations on the ethical procurement of chicken meat and of their eggs, as well. Organic chicken farms are the “free-range” variations where chickens have a coop or barn for protection and privacy as well as a yard for roaming and living.
However, out of all the various systems from cage-free to free-range and even “enriched-cage”, the incidental mortality rates of the chickens varies from system to system in unexpected ways. The enriched-cage chickens, raised in private cages with necessities such as an isolated nest and accessible scratching ground, have the lowest mortality rate out of all of them. When put into a wide open space, chickens will always resort to a baser level of social hazing, or be vulnerable to predators and exposure to unsafe elements.
Fish are an underspoken but over-represented victim of animal farming. Fish meat composes of the most eaten meat across the world. The “aquaculture” methods for fish meat are split between wild catch and straight up constricted farming. There’s no easy way to give fish a free roam space to be “organic” while still being controlled by a farm. In order to get them when they’re needed they can’t be let loose into a pond or lake where they can disappear until they wander too close to a hook or net.
The “Wild Caught” label that also applies to other animals is often misused, exactly for the purpose of promotion and glamor. To hunt is arguably more ethical than to far. Either way, an animal’s life is ended, but if it’s ended in their territory and on their terms it’s the closest that we get to inserting ourselves into the natural order as predators, rather than overhauling and restructuring that order out of convenience.
The real final nail is in the indecision many proponents of organic meat have reached in the nutritional value. The differences are scant and easily replaceable in terms of what isn’t gained by alternative diets. The lesser iron present in non-organic grown beef can be made up for with vegetables or legumes. Organic meat is mostly for show and to maintain a stance of ethical treatment.
If the end goal of purchasing organic meat is to seek out and use the healthiest option available, meat shouldn’t be the first consideration. Meat is meat, and if an animal’s life was good and stressless or terrible and depraved, the difference in the flavor isn’t as pronounced. The actual techniques to make animals tastier through their way of life comes at extreme premiums, such as with the highest grade of beef, the Wagyu method, which incorporates massive tracts of land and massages for the cows to tenderize them while they’re still alive.
The term “Organic” has legal constraints and testable conditions for it to be applied. Everything else is more or less at-will. A salmon farm can declare their fish wild-caught even if they use a vacuum tube to suck them all in from their enclosure. Certain produces have done such a thing, mislabeling their product to make it more appealing as a wholesaler.
The label of “Organic” is also attached to a shifting body of government. Enforcement is dependent on funding and organizational behaviors. Once the rules are established, a profit-minded farming outfit could very easily skirt by those rules to follow them at the bare minimum, give their livestock only the most simple and briefest moments of ethical interest, and then lock them in closets until it’s time to cut them up.
If you have a concern about eating meat an only want the safest varieties for yourself, the most honest effort you could do would be to go to direct-to-market butchers, not grocery stores. Go to the people who buy from the farms, and if possible, go to said farms and inspect them yourself as a potential recipient of the food they produce. Local, family owned farms with plenty of land and intention to use it will likely be accommodating to at least explain the process they go through with honesty and you can decide for yourself if they’re worth supporting.
Aside from that, the Organic label makes no difference but the price tag. It’s branding. It’s the same difference between brand name and off brand soda. No matter what, you’re drinking something bad for you, and whatever flavors are or aren’t present are replaceable or not worth it overall. The more obvious solution would just be to not get either one.