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New project – the safety of organic poultry

Some food and poultry scientists believe that organic food, despite its growing popularity among consumers, is not automatically safer than conventionally grown foods.

A project is now being undertaken by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. This project has been awarded a 3-year grant for nearly $600,000 from the USDA's National Integrated Food Safety Initiative to do food safety research in natural and organic poultry.

Prof Steven Ricke at the UA Food Science Department and the Centre for Excellence in Poultry Science serves as the project leader, and will be working together with Phil Crandall, a professor in Food Science, and Frank Jones, associate director for Extension in Poultry Science.

Conflicting definitions – "organic" and "natural"

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

Organic poultry takes the largest share of the organic meat market and is growing continually. Between 1997 and 2003, sales of organic broilers increased from about 38,000 to 6.3 mln birds. According to Rickie, the massive rise in the popularity of organic poultry has spurred on the need for a comprehensive study of how to ensure its safety, 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," he 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 4 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 Centre 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."

What can be expected?

Among the expected results of the project is a plan to write guidelines for Good Agricultural Practices - a recognised 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.

Source: Occupational Health & Safety Online

Natalie Berkhout

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