Bell & Evans in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania is one of the largest organic chicken producers in the world. Its chairman and president, Scott Sechler, grew up in the small farming community of Berks County, Kempton, and purchased the 128-year-old poultry business from the Bell family in 1986.
Approximately half of all chickens processed at the award-winning facility are USDA certified organic through Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO). Sechler, who has become something of an activist for raising the bar for “organic” higher, sees that number only growing.
Last year, he told trade publication WATT PoultryUSA that the COVID-19 pandemic had been a boon to the organic poultry industry and predicted growth of at least 10% year over year. another throughout the decade. The United States is the world’s largest producer of poultry meat, with a 17% share of world production, ahead of China and then Brazil.
In early August, Food Engineering, another trade publication, named Bell & Evans’ new certified organic chicken harvesting facility “Food Factory of the Year 2022” for its innovations, automations and high scores in categories such as employee and animal welfare, food safety, product quality and sustainability. The 411,500 square foot factory – about the size of seven football fields – went online in December 2021.
In late July, fresh off the trail visiting Minnesota grain growers, Sechler, whose company has partnered with the nonprofit Rodale Institute and Cargile [LINK TO ORGANIC GRAIN INITIATIVE https://attra.ncat.org/organic-grain-initiative-aims-to-transition-50000-acres/] to increase organic grain production, spoke about his operation and the organic industry at an institute press conference.
“I cook about 1,700,000 chickens a day right now,” he said. “About half of them are organic, and the organic thing is growing almost faster than I can find organic cereal produced in the United States.
“That’s why I’m hanging out in Minnesota right now, because I can convert faster there than in PA. So I’m going to be doing a lot more trips there this year.
About 90% of national grains certified as USDA organic currently come from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, he said.
“Over time we’ll get more on the East Coast here, but it’s hard to work with 30-row cultivators and grow every day and keep the weeds down without cheating with herbicides and pesticides.”
Bell & Evans has designed a “true organic report card” to show how the company exceeds these certification standards.
One way is to source only organic food domestically. Although the USDA organic program currently has equivalencies or reciprocal agreements with Canada, Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, the UK, and the EU, grains from other countries are permitted in organic production if the individual farm they come from has been certified by a USDA Accredited Inspector.
Also touting “the world’s first animal welfare-focused certified organic hatchery” (certified by the PCO), the company says it does not fumigate hatchery eggs with formaldehyde, provides organic feed to the hatch and does not inject antibiotics, or other biologically prohibited substances, on day 1 or 2 of life whereas, by USDA biological standards, some competitors do.
Organic Chicken and Egg
Kyla Smith, PCO’s certification program manager, said current USDA organic regulations only require chicks to be raised organically after the second day of life. In the particular case of a certified organic facility, said Smith, who also serves in an advisory capacity on the National Organic Board, that loophole is closed.
“The way the organic regulations read is that poultry must be managed organically from day two of life,” she said.
The public comment period is currently open on a proposed organic livestock and poultry standards rule that would clarify, strengthen and make more consistent at all levels the requirements for living conditions, care, transport and slaughter. Comments will be accepted for 60 days from posting on August 5, 2022.
“A proposed rule was released, very similarly, a few years ago that went into effect as soon as President Trump took office,” Smith said. “And then eventually the USDA eventually withdrew this rule. So it was republished as a proposed rule…and is now open for public comment. It covers a lot…in regards to animal welfare, because it is a fairly gray and vague area under the current regulations.