KANSAS CITY, MO. — In this new decade, the importance of organic meat and poultry has been elevated. With consumer attention focused on environmental sustainability, animal welfare and creating better and healthier food systems, many families purchase exclusively organic. 

“Consumers, armed with more information than ever, feel good about their decision to support organic production, for their health, and the wellbeing of the animal, rancher and land,” said Lori Carrion, director of operations for Panorama Meats, the Woodland, Calif.-based producer of 100% grass-fed and grass-finished certified organic beef. “Organic meat is a solid juxtaposition from what conventional meat producers have done in generations past and as the consumer educates themselves on the quality and health of their food, organic meat is an ideal solution to address their concerns.”

The organic meat segment – both fresh and processed – is still small within the total meat category, with a 1.4% share. However, its dollar growth is increasing faster than any other on-pack claim and four times more than the total meat category, according to the most recent data from Nielsen.

“Animal welfare is at the forefront of consumers’ minds,” said Dawn Burns, senior brand manager at Organic Valley, based in La Farge, Wisc. “They want transparency when it comes to what they’re feeding their family and themselves. They want to know about space per animal, outdoor access, whether or not growth hormones are being used. Consumers are beginning to make the correlation that it’s not only better for the animal but better for themselves.”  

With 30 years of experience and a commitment to the community, animals and the planet, Organic Valley is a pioneer of the organic meat industry.

“We began producing our delicious meats – without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or toxic synthetic pesticides – back in 1996,” Burns explained. “We insisted on third-party organic meat certification long before federal organic standards were established. We were the first in the industry to ban animal by-products from our cattle’s diet. The key to establishing a strong organic program is always moving toward higher standards.”

Organic poultry

While organic is still a small percentage of overall US chicken production, chicken represents most of the total organic animal protein in the United States, and is the main driver of continued growth in the category year over year.

In fact, a recent market research study projects the global organic chicken market size will grow by $7.54 billion between 2019-2023.

Gudjon Olafsson, vice president of marketing for Perdue Farms, Salisbury, Md., said the demand for organic products has grown steadily over the last several years, largely driven by millennial shoppers.

“As the number one producer of USDA Organic chicken in the United States, we’re also seeing the even younger generations – Gen Z, for example – influence their parents’ shopping habits and purchase decisions,” Olafsson said. “As animal welfare, personal health and sustainability continue to be increasingly important to consumers, we expect to see growth of the organic poultry market continue.”

Perdue Farms’ organic chicken products go beyond minimum label requirements in an effort to meet consumer expectations for environmental sustainability and higher levels of animal care.

“Our organic certification process covers not only the end product, but every step of the process and supply chain, all the way to market,” Olafsson said. “That includes organic, non-GMO grains for feed, certified organic farms that raise our chickens, and certified organic harvest and processing operations, all complying with the USDA’s National Organic Program and Organic Standards Board.”

Corwin Heatwole, chief executive officer of Shenandoah Valley Organic, Harrisonburg, Va., believes organic farming is the future of the poultry industry and key to preserving generational family farms.

“Consumer demand for organic foods continues to grow and so does protein. Partnering with family farmers to grow organic keeps their farm in demand and competitive,” Heatwole said. “And with our farmer-focus business model, they own their chickens, have freedom to raise their birds as they see fit, and are paid fairly for raising a high-quality flock.”

He added that the key to a strong organic program is, undoubtedly, committed growers.

“Finding and supporting growers that have genuine care and concern for the animals is our number one priority,” Heatwole said. “Without them we cannot survive. When our farmers convert to organic, they are making a long-term investment in the future of their farm that requires daily commitment. From walking the birds, checking feed and water every day, to creating environments for the birds to thrive, we rely on our farmers to raise healthy high-quality birds.”

Stamp of approval

Consumers view the organic seal as validation of the purity of their food, from ingredient sourcing to processing to getting the item on the shelf.

“Retailers and suppliers are focused on meeting the evolving needs of consumers and providing discerning shoppers with their desired choices,” Olafsson said. “As consumer interest in organic offerings continues to rise, retailers and suppliers alike will continue to adapt to meet their needs.”  

All farms raising Perdue’s organic chickens are audited annually by third-party organic certifiers, including Oregon Tilth and Quality Assurance International. Both are pioneers in the organic movement and leading advocates for certified organic production, defining organic as an approach to agriculture that fosters the cycling resources, promotes ecological balance and supports higher levels of animal care.

“In addition, all farms raising our organic chickens must also meet requirements for GAP certification,” Olafsson said. “Our free-range pasture areas are typically as large as the poultry house. Doors with sunshades placed every 50 feet, and outdoor enrichments, encourage poultry to venture outside once they are fully feathered and when weather conditions are safe.”

Additionally, Olafsson noted it is also important to acknowledge the farm families who grow the company’s organic chickens with tireless dedication.

“These strong partnerships help ensure that our chickens are raised with the highest level of care and compliance to the standards we’ve set,” he said.

Organic Prairie, the brand of organic meats produced by the same farmer-owned co-op as Organic Valley, has 348 farm families that produce beef, pork, turkey and chicken and a wide portfolio of products from fresh, frozen, case ready and meat snacks. 

“We recently launched three Organic Valley bacon SKU’s (original pork, sugar-free pork and turkey) from our animals that are humanely raised without antibiotics, hormones, or toxic synthetic pesticides,” Burns said. “The sugar-free bacon hits on the high protein keto and paleo diet trends. We also have the No. 1 100% grass-fed beef snacking option in jerky and sticks, called Mighty Organic.”  

Almost 20 years ago, when Panorama Meats was founded, the company’s ranchers were fighting an uphill battle trying to convince the consumer to pay more for a healthier, more environmentally sustainable product. Carrion notes today that they’re on the other side of that hill, where customers are coming to them with important questions. How are you caring for your animals? How is grass-fed, grass-finished beef the most sustainable form of beef production?

“Achieving organic certification is a lengthy process. What makes the cattle organic is the pasture they graze on and certifying hundreds of acres is a three-year endeavor,” Carrion explained. “There is a lot of work, time and money involved in the process, but it is important to instill trust for the customers.”

According to Carrion, shoppers are increasingly concerned with several facets of their meat production. First, what is the standard of animal welfare? Concerning images of mistreating sick animals, poor living conditions and mishandling some animal’s natural instincts have raised concern and consumers want to know that the companies they buy from and support are trustworthy.

Second, there is growing concern over the long-term effects of antibiotics and added hormones in our food system.

“Overall quality and healthfulness of the meat is also a priority, and animals raised on grass their entire life, in addition to being certified organic, is going to have a different health profile than conventional non-organic beef,” she said. “In addition, customers are worried about environmental issues and looking for regenerative agriculture leadership. With so many concerns, consumers are searching for a better option and we’ve been proud to be a part of that answer by practicing sustainable organic ranching with consistent quality and success.”

Marketing matters

According to the “Power of Meat 2019,” report, 76% of consumers feel that supermarkets have a responsibility to sell meat and poultry with good animal welfare standards. There is a lot of confusion and deception on what that means, and it’s up to retailers to champion the explanation of organic meat and poultry benefits.

“We use Oregon Tilth to verify all of our claims and standards,” Burns said. “I also think supermarkets could make sure they are growing with the category and ensure they have the cooler space dedicated to a variety of protein options and claims.”

Heatwole noted that often retailers are reluctant to move their assortment to organic, so consumers who want to purchase organic are limited to a few key items, and they miss out on the variety and convenience commodity meats offer.

“Increasing the assortment beyond key items is crucial, so consumers can use organic for all occasions, not just center of the plate at dinner time,” he said.

As part of Perdue Farms’ commitment to transparency, the company believes in educating consumers so they can make informed choices about what is best for themselves and their families.

“Likewise, our retail partners make great effort to help shoppers be informed at shelf,” Olafsson said. “Product labels can sometimes be confusing to people who might not know the difference between all of the options in the store, and retailers and brands alike should continue to make sure they are helping to objectively educate people about the products they make and sell.”

Carrion believes training and education about organic is very important, as most people outside of the organic industry still have a hard time comprehending the differences and benefits and therefore the rationale for the cost difference organic typically entails.

“When asking those behind the meat counter, butchers will often tell an unknowing customer the baseline for what natural means, but that only scrapes the surface of what it means to be organic,” she said. “The marketing of organic beef often excludes the fact that the cattle were not raised in the United States. Less than 20% of grass-fed beef sold in the US is raised here. Truly highlighting American grass-fed, grass-finished beef would go a long way to differentiating the importance of supporting our US ranchers.”