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Professional Version

Organic Production Practices for Poultry


Bruce Stewart-Brown

, DVM, DACPV, Perdue Farms

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2023 | Modified Jun 2023

Organic Poultry

According to production animal standards, birds for slaughter that are designated as organic must be raised under organic management starting no later than the second day of life. Preventive management practices, including a vaccination program to keep animals healthy, are used; however, antibiotics cannot be used for any reason, and federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in all poultry. Organic management standards prohibit producers from withholding treatment for a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic. All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors; they may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, or to protect soil or water quality.

For a product to be labeled with the “USDA organic” seal, it must comply with USDA's Organic Regulations. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, and the USDA established national organic standards in 2002. As of 2011, the organic layer flock in the US was ~6.5 million hens, and the average number of organic broilers processed each week was ~0.5 million birds. These numbers represent ~2.3% of the layer population and ~0.3% of the broiler production.

Between 2001 and 2011, the organic layer flock grew 400%, and broilers processed as organic grew 900%. Note, however, that in certain years of the following decade, both layer and broiler organic numbers shrank from one year to the next. Growth in these populations is not a straight and predictable line.

The first step toward organic certification for a poultry producer is to select a third-party certifier. The USDA keeps an actively updated list of accredited certification agencies, all of which follow the same USDA Organic Regulations. The producer then submits an application and Organic System Plan (OSP) to the selected certification agency.

In food animal production, this plan includes information about the animal source, feeding practices, management practices, health care, record keeping, and product labeling. The certifier then reviews the OSP and, if it is deemed adequate, assigns a qualified organic inspector to the animal production facility.

The inspector conducts a detailed evaluation of the OSP and the producer's actual farm practices, provides a written exit interview of findings to the producer, and prepares a report to the certifier. If the farm is found to meet all National Organic Program standards, an organic certificate may be issued. The food animal product must be labeled with information identifying both the producer and the certifier (“Certified organic by...”). Use of the USDA organic seal on packaging is optional. Continuing organic certification requires annual inspections of the poultry farm.

Animal Production Claims and “Natural” Claims for Organic Production Practices in Poultry

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) permits the use of animal production claims (truthful statements about the raising of animals from which meat and poultry products are derived) and the term “natural” in the labeling of meat and poultry products. For many years, in the absence of a uniformly accepted definition of the term "organic," animal production claims have served as an alternative in the labeling of meat and poultry products. Thus, producers may wish to continue to use animal production claims (eg, “Raised Without Added Hormones,” “Free Range,” "No Antibiotics Ever," "All Vegetarian Diet") in meat and poultry labeling.

FSIS' system for evaluating documentation to ensure the accuracy of animal production claims, such as producer affidavits of specific raising protocols or independent third-party programs with audits, will continue to be used to verify these types of claims.

The term “natural” may be used when products contain no artificial ingredients and are no more than minimally processed in accordance with FSIS' Definition of the Term "Natural". The term may be used in combination with the claim “certified organic by (a certifying entity)” when these requirements are met. The definition of "naturally raised" is undergoing review by the USDA, which may result in changes to these definitions.

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