Organic food is now so mainstream that whole supermarket aisles are devoted to organic products, and you can even buy it by mail order. There are farms a-plenty vying to offer you their produce, neatly boxed and delivered to your door by courier. We've tested the best of the bunch in the UK, specifically focusing on suppliers of organic meat.
But first, some questions and answers about organic food.
What's so great about organic, and are people being rational in choosing it, or is it simply a feel-good fad? Surveys show that the three main motivations for choosing organic are health, taste and ethics.
What's the bottom line on health? Although there's not much data on human health and organic food, the health of animals has been well studied. According to one Norwegian survey, animals fed on organic foodstuff are more fertile and have less disease than conventionally fed animals. That may be because organic food contains higher levels of antioxidants, fat-soluble vitamins and health-giving omega-3 fatty acids (Tidsskr Nor Laegefor, 2004; 124: 1529-31). And, of course, it has far fewer pesticide residues. So, we can be reasonably certain that, if animals are healthier eating organically, so then would we.
Even the arch-conservative US Department of Agriculture (USDA) agrees-although somewhat backhandedly. In one rather cynical exercise, USDA economists calculated that organic food offered a bad deal in terms of dollars saved on medical health bills. Yes, they said, people were healthier from eating organics, but not that healthy. They worked out that the cost of buying organic and so averting any particular "adverse health outcome" could be up to "461 times as large as the value of benefits" (Am J Altern Agri, 2000; 15: 9-18).
What about taste? Some people swear blind that they can tell the difference between organic and agrochemical foods but, when actually put to the test, they often can't. An exhaustive Danish survey of the evidence managed to find only one study that showed a consistently detectable taste difference-and then only with carrots and leafy vegetables (Ecological Agriculture. Den Kongelige Veterinaer-Og Landbohojskole, 23 May 2002). A more recent US survey found that organic strawberries and apples also tasted better in scientific trials (American Dietetic Association. Organic Food Production Talking Points. April 2007).
Animals apparently have a much better sense of taste than humans do. In food-testing experiments, when animals were given a choice between organic and conventionally grown food, they overwhelmingly chose organic (Ecological Agriculture. Den Kongelige Veterinaer-Og Landbohojskole, 23 May 2002). As any old-fashioned, pre-intensive farmer will tell you, animals instinctively choose what food they need to stay healthy. For example, chickens readily eat unpalatable chopped-up oyster shells to obtain calcium to make their eggshells, or favour certain plants if they're short of particular nutrients.
So, animals are telling us that organic food is healthier-and probably tastier, provided your tastebuds are as unsullied as theirs are.
As for ethics, organic farming ticks so many boxes for which conventional farming can't even muster putting pen to paper. First, the environment: organic farming maintains soil fertility and structure, thus preserving topsoil. And, of course, as it doesn't use them, there's no fertilizer or pesticide run-off and, hence, no environmental pollution. Organic farms also encourages biodiversity, supporting more natural fauna and flora. They're even more climate-change friendly: no fertilizers mean lower levels of carbon-dioxide emissions. They're also guaranteed GM (genetically modified)-free.
And then, there's the question of animal welfare. Organic farming is non-intensive almost by its very nature. Cattle are kept indoors only during winter, and poultry are usually free range. Their feed will also be organic (hence, they'll be healthier) and, if they do fall ill, surveys show that organic farmers use far fewer drugs than do conventional farmers.
So there are lots of very good reasons to choose organic, despite what official bodies such as the UK Food Standards Agency or the USDA would have you believe. In any case, consumers are already voting with their feet-in farmers' markets and supermarkets, and via mail order.
Fruit and vegetables boxes led the way with mail order and, now, it's moving into meat, as more and more organic livestock farmers are getting into direct-to-consumer sales. In the UK alone, there are scores of organic-meat suppliers, offering a speedy farm-to-door service. Most suppliers act as middlemen between farmers and customers, but there are a few farmers who offer a direct service.
For their meat to qualify as organic, animals must be given only organic feed. But how can you tell if this is so? The EU (and, therefore, the UK government) operates a scheme that will certify whether produce complies with the minimum organic standards. However, this certification turns out to be rather elementary, and does not include such extras as animal welfare or the use of drugs. For example, a recent ITV programme exposed some UK government-approved organic chicken meat as having been very intensively reared.
A more reliable UK watchdog is the Soil Association. Its image was once rather fuddy-duddy, but it has now cleverly repositioned itself as a hard-headed campaigner for organic farming which also offers a valuable policing service on behalf of the consumer. The Association operates a nationwide farm-inspection scheme that checks compliance with high standards of both organic husbandry and animal welfare [and, incidentally, is doing a far better job of it than the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)]. Its website (soilassociation.org/directory) lists all of the UK farms that meet their organic certification standard.
Putting companies to the test
We tested six of the leading UK mail-order suppliers, comparing for them for meat quality, speed of delivery, packaging, value for money and, most important of all, quality of the source - in other words, where does the meat come from?
We chose boneless chicken breasts as the meat to test, and telephoned in all of the orders during the same week in July 2007. All of the orders were received at our London offices, cooked on the day of arrival and tasted by a panel of average consumers.
The prices stated here are what we paid for the chicken breasts at that time, but prices may vary seasonally or with special offers.
Overall, we were impressed by the high standards of the mail-order marketplace. All of the meat arrived fresh, vacuum-packed and kept cool by ice packs inside of well-insulated boxes, which could be returned for free. In addition, the general standard of animal rearing and meat production was excellent.
Remember, though, that buying your organic meat this way is not cheap. For example, mail-order chicken breasts are on average about 25 per cent more expensive than if purchased from an organic butcher (if you can find one), 200 per cent dearer than fresh, non-organic supermarket breasts, and a staggering 700 per cent more than the standard frozen chicken breasts from the likes of ASDA. Then, there are the courier costs on top, too - which can run to about lb5-10.
SHEEPDROVE ORGANIC FARM
Price: lb20.10 per kg
The only meat in our survey not to come via a middleman, Sheepdrove supplies direct - hence, their below-average price. Located in the most rural part of Berkshire, Sheepdrove is run by ex-publishing millionaire Peter Kindersley. But this is no hobby-farm enterprise. It's a huge mixed (livestock and crops) farm of over 2000 acres, yet, despite its size, it's run with a smallholder's attention to detail - and it's super-organic and welfare-friendly to boot. For his chickens, Kindersley has established semiwooded fields (after all, chickens are descended from jungle animals), and has even planted 'herb zones', where the birds can select their own natural remedies. Our panel thought the meat was tasty and tender, although the actual breast sizes were a bit on the small side. The maximum delivery time is a respectable six days.
WELL-HUNG MEAT COMPANY
Price: lb19.49 per kg
Despite its rather saucy name, this came out tops in our survey for quality. "Nice big fillets", "very plump and juicy" and "really flavoursome and tender" were typical comments from our consuming panellists. They were also impressed by the fact that the meat was 100-per-cent traceable. Every pack of meat has a carcass number on it so you can link it back to the farm that it came from. The chicken in our survey came from Stream Farm in Devon, where the animals are loosely housed in sheds, with plenty of access to pastures outside. The farm chooses slow-growing chicken breeds, which is more expensive, but enhances flavour. The only minor criticism was of the packaging; although the sprig of rosemary was considered a nice touch, the meat rattled around in the box, and there was only one ice-pack to keep it cool. Delivery is a little slower than its rivals (from about seven to 14 days), but that's more than offset by the value for money, attention to animal welfare and taste.
Price: lb17.99 per kg
Although the cheapest breasts in our survey, this is by no means a victim of the 'you get what you pay for' maxim. Orders normally arrive within three days - and are excellently packaged, in the opinion of our panel. The meat was of fine quality - "tasty, moist and tender", said our consumers. Goodness Direct source their organic chicken from one farm only: Common End Farm, located in Derbyshire, which went organic less than 10 years ago. The chicken-rearing methods are mildly intensive, however, as the chickens are housed at 10 to the square metre at night - barely better than the latest EU maximum stocking density of 33 kg of live animals per square metre, yet within Soil Association guidelines, nevertheless. However, the birds have "access to clover-rich fields" during the day, and their sheds are mobile, enabling them to be moved onto fresh pastures.
ABLE & COLE
Price: lb22 per kg
Free delivery - and relatively fast (within seven days), too. "Nice and juicy breasts" and "a lot of flavour", said our panel, so what's not to like? Well, A&C don't offer a nationwide service, and their packaging is a little crude, although effective. The company says it sources products from "over 60 British farms, including many who would be too small to have their own box schemes". Their chicken meat, however, comes from Common End Farm, which also supplies Goodness Direct (see above) and Swaddles (see below). This farm also rears pigs, sheep and ducks, so 'small' is hardly the right adjective. However, the reasonable price and, particularly, the free delivery makes this company good value for money.
GRAIG FARM ORGANIC
Price: lb31.96 per kg
This is a Rolls-Royce of a product - with a price tag to match. Its recyclable packaging has a sumptuous sheep's fleece lining to protect the goods in transit, but speed of delivery is not Graig Farm's strong point - it could be up to 10 days if you're unlucky. Chickens are reared on a Herefordshire farm that offers the birds ready access to grass pastures that don't appear to be overstocked, and so should support enough grubs and worms to keep the chickens happy. In fact, the animal welfare seems excellent, even to the extent of saving the chickens the journey to 'Journey's End'. They are slaughtered on the farm itself, usually at 12 weeks (which sounds young, but it's twice the age of most intensively reared chickens). We found Graig Farm's quality control wasn't quite up to scratch, however, with one breast being decidedly a AA-cup size, which could be a nuisance if you're planning a dinner party, for example.
SWADDLES GREEN FARM
Price: lb29.45 per kg
"Swaddles food is without compromise" is this company's less-than-punchy sales pitch, but its delivery service certainly lives up to the pledge - being less than 24 hours if you live in London. This is an amazing speed, given that their chicken comes from "the Derbyshire Dales". But where exactly? They don't say on the packaging, but we think it's our old friend Common End Farm. That's because we found a Swaddles label in our Able & Cole delivery, which we know gets supplies from Common End, as does Goodness Direct. Swaddles has now confirmed that this is the case, and yet, they are a staggering 70-per-cent more expensive than Goodness Direct - which uses the very same farm. In Swaddles' defence, their chicken breasts were judged the biggest in our survey - they "looked and tasted gorgeous" and were "very plump and beautifully succulent".