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What it Means to Be Organic: the Organic Chicken and Egg Debate

February 13th, 2014
Paige M. Tomaselli, Senior Staff Attorney & Lisa J. Bunin, Ph.D., Organic Policy Director
Center for Food Safety

Photo taken at the Whole Foods store in Tenleytown, Washington, DC, January 31, 2014

This notice might confuse consumers who have come to trust the organic label and believe that organic foods don’t contain synthetic ingredients. It’s true that synthetics are generally not allowed in organic production.  But, some synthetics like methionine—a feed additive currently allowed in organic chicken and egg feed — are temporarily permitted as an exception to the rule.  “Temporarily” is the operative word here. It is expected that the use of the synthetic substance will end.

Organic regulations are meant to facilitate growth of organic markets. That’s why regulations allow farmers and food producers to temporarily use a synthetic ingredient or additive when an alternative isn’t readily available.  As long as the substance doesn’t harm human and environmental health, organic producers can apply for a 5 year temporary waiver while searching for a non-synthetic equivalent. If approved, that synthetic is added to the “National List” of allowed substances. After five years its approval and use is slated to “Sunset, ” or cease. If necessary, the affected parties can request an extension of the waiver to continue use for an additional 5 years.

Synthetic methionine has been on the National List for 12 years because the organic egg industry has been dragging its heels to find a suitable alternative.  It is now slated to Sunset (come off the “National List”) in 3 ½ years but, as evidenced by the sign in Whole Foods*, resistance against its use is already mounting. 

While it is true that “methionine is an essential amino acid that egg laying hens need in reliable consistent quantities,” as the sign states, the methionine eaten by chickens doesn’t need to be synthetic.  Chickens produce reliable and consistent quantities of eggs in their natural, methionine-rich pasture environment where they feed on worms and insects.  Corn gluten, potato meal and non-synthetic dietary supplements are also possible sources of methionine for egg laying poultry.  Synthetic methionine is a crutch that has unacceptably allowed large chicken and egg producers to become “organic.”  And, unfortunately, confined, factory-like conditions are increasingly becoming commonplace in organic production.  Such operations can crowd hundreds of thousands of chickens indoors with little access to soil or pasture.  They also feed chickens a largely corn- or soy-based diet, neither of which is high in natural methionine. To make up for these less-than-natural living conditions and the lost food diversity, organic producers have resorted to adding synthetic methionine to chicken feed. 

The issue about whether to prohibit synthetic methionine gets at the heart of organic standards. In the intervening years prior to Sunset, it’s up to the organic egg industry to seek out and implement alternatives. In this spirit, CFS strongly believes that the National Organic Program must permanently prohibit the use of synthetic methionine at its Sunset date of 2017. An organic egg shortage in the near term, while inconvenient to those of us who rely upon organic eggs in our weekly diet, is a small price to pay to ensure the future integrity of organic foods and the organic label.

Note:  We understand that this is a complicated issue. If you are interested in having a more in depth understanding of the synthetic methionine in chicken feed issue as we see it, you can read our testimony to the National Organic Standards Board HERE.

 *This sign has since been removed.


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