New Project to Explore Safety of Organic Poultry

Organic food is all the rage, but, according to a team of food and poultry scientists, despite popular opinion it's not automatically safer than conventionally grown foods.

A new project is being led by University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, which has been awarded a three-year grant for nearly $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Integrated Food Safety Initiative grant to do food safety research in natural and organic poultry. Steven Ricke, a professor in the UA Food Science Department and the Center for Excellence in Poultry Science, serves as the project leader with Phil Crandall, a professor in Food Science, and Frank Jones, associate director for Extension in Poultry Science.

The term "organic" is strictly defined by the USDA National Organic Program to include poultry raised with no antibiotics, fed 100 percent organic feed, and given access to outdoors. USDA's definition of "natural" for meat and poultry products specifies no artificial ingredients or added color and only minimal processing. However, the market for "natural" is rapidly changing, and this definition is being updated. USDA has also proposed voluntary standards for "naturally-raised" livestock to be raised without antibiotics and not fed animal by-products.

Organic poultry currently accounts for no more than 2 percent of the total poultry market, but it is the largest share of the organic meat market and is growing by leaps and bounds. Between 1997 and 2003, sales of organic broilers increased from about 38,000 to 6.3 million birds.

The meteoric rise in popularity of organic poultry has prompted a need for a comprehensive study of how to ensure its safety, Ricke said, as organic and natural poultry are currently produced and processed in smaller facilities than is conventional poultry. "However, small production is usually not integrated, providing less opportunity for the control of product quality, including food safety, as in large-scale, integrated production," Ricke said. "Almost no university research has focused on small-scale poultry production systems or their food safety issues."

Ricke and his team leaders will coordinate 13 research specialists on four teams from the University of Arkansas, Texas A&M University, West Virginia University, Cornell University, and Purdue University, with Dr. Anne Fanatico of the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

"Each team consists of faculty who can address the complex nature of the problems associated with food safety in organic and natural poultry," Ricke said. "Our Extension specialists have existing close relationships with growers and processors statewide and nationally, as well as food safety education and communication specialists who can address the complex issues to the grower, processor, consumer, and retail industries."

Among the expected results of the project is a plan to write guidelines for Good Agricultural Practices--a recognized collection of principles for production and processing--for food safety on natural and organic poultry farms. The guidelines will focus on developing plans that are relevant to plants of particular sizes and will play a critical role in ensuring safety.

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