To most consumers, the phrase “Certified Organic” connotes a whole constellation of benefits.

For the true believer-shoppers who eagerly pay the premium most organic products command, they are arguably the two most powerful words in food marketing, conveying the notions of quality, purity, eco-friendliness and nutritional superiority.

None of which are exclusive to organic foods, of course.

When it comes to meat products, the halo effect of “organic” extends even further, despite the regulatory absence of comprehensive production and handing standards.

According to USDA’s requirements, meat products labeled “Certified Organic” and carrying the USDA-approved “Organic” seal, must be fed rations that are also certified as organic, although added vitamins and minerals are allowed. Livestock must be treated with veterinary medications when sick or injured, but then cannot be sold as organic. Cattle must be “out on pasture for the entire grazing season,” although they may be kept indoors in severe weather, and must consume 30% of their feed from pasture.

That’s it. Other claims that organic marketers typically make — beyond the almost mandatory statements about superior taste and nutritional value — are not covered by regulations, even though they’re often quite persuasive, as these examples from organic beef companies demonstrate:

  • Organic Prairie: “Our family farmers work with nature, employing a healthy, holistic approach to soil enrichment, land management, and animal care.”
  • American Farmers Network: “One of the leading organic meat brands in the country . . . with strong commitment to sustainable organic farming and humane animal treatment.”
  • Rocky Mountain Organic Meats: “Our certified organic farmers and ranchers believe [in] using environmentally friendly agricultural practices and livestock-friendly animal husbandry techniques.”

Or these marketers of organic pork producers:

  • D’Artangan: “We [are] committed to free-range, natural production and sustainable, humane farming practices.”
  • Sunworks Farms: “All of our pigs are certified organic and humanely raised . . . outdoors in the summer in moveable shelters that are moved once or twice a day onto fresh green grass.”
  • Good Earth Farms: “Our organic pork live out on pasture for their entire stay here. Their feed is free of antibiotics and they are not crowded in small pens.”

None of that positioning is in any way negative. I’ve noted many times in this space that I personally buy organic meats for my family, not so much because of its alleged superiority, but to support small-scale, local family farm operations.

Honesty in advertising

The point is, most of what organic meat purveyors claim about their product lines in terms of animal welfare is outside the regulatory requirements, yet almost all of them tack a “humanely raised” claim onto their organic packaging and advertising.

There are, however, a few purveyors who take a refreshingly honest approach about animal well-being, such as Texas-based Slanker Grass-Fed Meats. Here is their statement:

“Of course we all support proper animal handling techniques. But to imply that only Mom-and-Pop outfits provide proper care of animals is slanderous and unprofessional. In fact, on average the larger ranches and processing plants sometimes have the very best records in animal handling and care!”

When it comes to animal agriculture, USDA’s organic standards are focused more on what goes into the meat, rather than the animals’ living conditions.

That’s about to change.

Last week, USDA’s National Organic Standards Board proposed new guidelines for organic meat and poultry production that would provide a higher standard of animal welfare. Some of the changes include tougher rules on handling and transport; strengthening the mandate that animals have access to the outdoors, as well as minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements; new standards on how densely poultry can be stocked; and an end to tail docking and debeaking.

“This will support the continued growth in the organic livestock and poultry sectors, and ensure consumer confidence in the organic label,” Miles McEvoy, who heads USDA's organic program, told the Associated Press.

But the proposed revisions are not about boosting anyone’s confidence in the organic certification, it’s more about aligning the standards with what many people believe is already required.

Ironically, regulators are almost always trying to write rules that catch up with the consumer demands for safety, quality and transparency.

In the case of organic labeling, consumer beliefs were way ahead of the regulators.

Until now. 

› To comment on the new rules, log onto the federal eRulemaking portal at http://www.regulations.gov.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator