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Wednesday, 17 July 2019 01:23

Synthetic Methionine as a Poultry Feed Additive in Organic Poultry & Egg Production – the hidden 'Achilles Heal' of the Australian Organic Food Industry.

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By Barry Ferrier, PhD

 Why choose organic food?

The vital job of agriculture is to produce enough food to satisfy the nutritional requirements of the world’s exponentially growing population - currently at 7.6 billion and rising fast! It was the industrialization of food production industries over the past two centuries that has made this challenging task appear achievable. But the rush towards industrialization in so many aspects of human society has had many unforeseen consequences to our natural environment and we have become gradually aware of some of the dangers of these practices to consumer’s health – consequences and dangers that make these practices inherently unsustainable. Fears that these “unnatural” dangers and consequences are not being adequately addressed by authorities add to a sense of foreboding about the future.

But that’s not a new phenomenon, and the modern organic food movement had it’s beginnings over a century ago when reforming ideas first began to find popular support independently in both German and English speaking countries, as a reaction to agriculture’s dramatic mechanization and the industrialization of society in general, and the subsequent loss of rural lifestyles and age-old connection with the soil.

In Germany it was an important part of a larger influential social movement (known as the Lebensreform or "life reform") which expressed a desire to resist this increasing industrialization, the use of and dependence on technology, rampant materialism, and de-personalized urbanization that were shaping a new way of life, one we have become used to now. This idealistic reform movement, led by idealists such as Rudolph Steiner, promoted the return to a more natural way of living that embraced a vegetarian diet, physical fitness training, natural medicine and going back to a relationship with Nature.

It was the runaway success of Silent Spring by American marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (1962) that proved a turning point for both the fledgling modern organic food and environmental activism movements (Kristiansen and Merfield 2006). Silent Spring’s poetic view of the chain of life underpinned by strong science, brought a whole new set of arguments against industrial farming focused on the use of chemicals, especially DDT, and their adverse (even carcinogenic) effects on human health, wildlife and the environment.

Food consumption patterns drive change in the food production cycle – demand affects supply - and consumer awareness is therefore a realm of key importance (and demonstrably more effective than government regulation) for progressing the world towards a more sustainable economy into the future.

The concept of “organic” food offers consumers a unique, visible class of products derived from more ecologically integrated farming methods and, in general, more carefully produced food, produced by farmers with an image of caring about these issues.

Organic food consumption is seen by advocates as a more responsible and sustainable diet that benefits the environment as well as personal health.

Organic consumers thus reject a passive role in the food system.

Taking an active role of choosing responsibly helps resolve the sense of contradiction between environmentally conscious behaviour and enjoying the hedonistic pleasures of life for their own sake. Thus the availability of organic food choices inspire consumers to adopt new values and ideals that give them a sense of participating in and supporting more sustainable food practices and a healthier planet.

Eating organic is in this sense a symbolic lifestyle choice and has thus long been associated with a range of New Age ideals and spiritualism, but in more recent times has found a wider following among the general public as a result of the greater awareness of health outcomes from diet choices, in turn resulting from access to the internet, and broader concerns in the community and mass media about pollution and climate change. The testament to this trend in awareness and consumption patterns is that the organic food section of your average local supermarket is now a familiar and accepted mainstream phenomenon.

“Organic” Chicken?

People like eating meat. Animal proteins have no magic exclusive nutritional values, but many consumers are attracted by the palatability.

On a global level, the quality of the human diet is largely determined by the amounts of animal food products consumed. Meat, milk, and eggs are especially important because they furnish high quality protein to balance the protein available from vegetable sources, which tend to be too low in protein to meet the nutritional requirements of either adults or children. Vegetarian diets offer less range of choices for obtaining palatable proteins and can prove deficient in essential amino acids unless supplemented.

Poultry meat is the richest source of protein per unit of energy, and eggs furnish liberal amounts of vitamin A, riboflavin, and iron. For both taste and nutritional value, poultry has become a widely accepted component of the modern diet.

Organic food consumers are willing to pay a premium to enjoy poultry and eggs that offer these benefits of taste and nutrition, but are produced according to “traditional” (non-industrial) farming practices and organic ideals. In keeping with the socially responsible and health conscious spirit of the organic food movement, these consumers want to know the meat is free from “unnatural” synthetic inputs such as growth hormones, preservatives and chemicals, and they generally would prefer humane farming methods, and thus would be likely to support “free-range” chickens (more expensive to produce) over cheaper ‘battery’ farming methods. They purchase ‘organic’ chickens and eggs smug in the knowledge they are being conscious humans, helping save the planet for their children, while avoiding ingesting toxins.

The modern poultry industry – a brief overview

In 1920, an average farm flock consisted of 200 hens or less; whereas today with

advances in automation, the commercial poultry operation may commonly have 25,000 hens. Previous farm chores like mixing feed are mechanized or outsourced.

Despite these economies of scale, it takes considerable business acumen to keep a poultry enterprise profitable. A poultryman must be more aware of all phases of the business to survive in a very competitive industry. Feed manufacturers must also be acutely aware of the advances being made by poultry scientists so that their feeds measure up to the potential bred into modern birds, to keep their market share.

Poultry assimilate nutrients in feed for promoting growth, egg production, and replacing injured tissues. Advances in our understanding of animal physiology, and more especially the development of physiological chemistry over the last century, made possible more efficient feeds and feeding regimens.

Advances in poultry technology are gauged against the universal measure of broiler production efficiency — the pounds of feed required to produce 1 lb, or 1 kilo of meat. New developments in poultry nutrition, breeding, housing, and disease control all play a part in more efficient production, and have been implemented by industry players, who have gradually brought various phases of poultry production under one vertically coordinated management system.

The advent of synthetic vitamins, amino acids and surplus fats had a big influence on this picture. It has become possible to use lower cost sources of protein and energy. Poultry feeds today no longer carry as main ingredients just oats, wheat, barley or maize, and oilseed meal, but also include a long list of additives, some “synthetic”.

One of the more costly requisite nutrients is protein, which contains nitrogen, some sulfur, and very small amounts of phosphorus. During the digestion of proteins, they are broken up by enzymes in the body into amino acids, their so-called building blocks. The resulting amino acids are absorbed into the blood stream and form proteins. Free amino acids aren’t stored in body reserves. Generally, when the protein in a chicken’s feed ration is supplied mainly from vegetable sources, the biological value of the protein is considerably less than in the case of animal protein.

So-called “Essential” amino acids like Methionine (Met) cannot be synthesized by the bird and must be ingested through food, and must therefore be present in the feed in order to supply the building blocks needed in the synthesis of body proteins, and support desirable growth (Pesti., 2009). In a “conventional” commercial poultry farming environment, as the methionine content in raw plant materials is insufficient, synthetic methionine complements are now commonly added to the animal’s feed, driven by a profitability motive.

Methionine deficiency typically leads to poor feed conversion, leading to retarded growth in meat birds, curled feet and reduced egg production in layers and breeders.

Methionine is required to provide the building blocks for immune cells and tissues, so is significant to the bird’s ongoing health.

Methionine is a major component of feathers and is critical to feather formation. A deficiency of methionine results in poor feather growth. A methionine-deficient bird will tend to peck at a neighbour’s feathers in an attempt to obtain enough methionine. Feather pecking can quickly turn into cannibalistic behaviour in a flock and causes unattractive skin damage and which can lead to infections.

What is Synthetic Methionine and why feed it to chickens? Or why NOT?

synthetic methionine in the organic poultry Industry, AustraliaThe production process of synthetic methionine requires six main raw materials: sulphur, methanol, ammonia, propylene, sulphuric acid and energy (gas – CH4).

It can be a somewhat shocking fact to digest at first, but the basic raw materials used in synthetic methionine production for this “essential” poultry feed additive are derived from byproducts of the petrochemical industry – an especially jarring realisation to those who are inclined to eat “organic”. Propylene is the main strategic raw material for methionine production. Propylene is a colourless gas with a faint petroleum like odour, shipped in a liquefied form. The primary industrial source of propylene is from steam “cracking” of naphtha (a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture) or other industrial liquids such as gas oil, to produce ethylene. This “cracking” is in itself a highly complex industrial process that is light years away from the concepts associated with eating organic food…

Even if you are not of “organic” persuasion, the concept of eating chicken fed with petrochemical byproducts is challenging, and thus the use of synthetic amino acids in poultry diets has been very controversial. Nevertheless, synthetic methionine is now commonly added to conventional poultry diets. It’s use however is “restricted” or banned outright in certified organic poultry diets, depending on the particular national organic certification protocols in place, and it is this variability, and lack of disclosure in packaging that has the organic purists worried.

“Free range chicken meat accounts for 10 to 15% of chicken produced, with less than 1% of the total production also being organic.” 

(Australian Chicken Meat Federation statement)

In modern poultry farming, synthetic methionine now plays a significant role in increasing body weight, carcass yield, over all health of poultry and in foetal development . But its usage has been questioned in organic farming practices, and synthetic methionine is listed among the prohibited synthetic substances in some countries (Anonymous 1999), specifically BECAUSE such amino acids are produced either synthetically, or from genetically engineered sources, and the former involves the use of highly toxic and hazardous chemicals such as hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, and mercaptaldehyde.

Industrial synthesis of DL-methionine, and DL-methionine hydroxyl analogues also result in significant pollution of the environment (Methionine 2001). Further to this, synthetic methionine added to poultry diets is metabolized into highly toxic compounds like methyl propionate (a flammable substance used in paints & varnishes), thereby adversely altering “the performance” of birds (Bender., 1975).

The fact that ingredients used in synthesizing Met industrially are derived from the fossil fuel industry mean that they are therefore an inherently unsustainable input, and further, from an environmentalist’s point of view, it’s production also indirectly contributes to greenhouse gases, and ultimately climate change.

Getting back to the idealistic consumer of ‘organic’ poultry and eggs which we identified at the outset – all of this would come as a major shock to such consumers identifying with this highly aware and sensitive niche market IF THIS INFORMATION WAS AVAILABLE ON THE PACKAGING!

But it’s NOT. This is the Achilles heal of so-called “organic” poultry products and is seen by advocates of a “pure” organic certification scheme as a major sell–out of standards. Notifying organic food consumers of this practice by truth in packaging would inevitably cause an outcry, and a probable subsequent downturn in sales, and have a serious negative impact on profits, pushing some producers out of the industry. Producers of commercial organic poultry are likely to lose yield if synthetic methionine is universally banned under any changes to Australian certification protocols currently adopted by some key industry certification bodies, and this would result in price increases to the consumer, reduced sales and further impacting profitability.

But bringing this anomaly to public attention could have a more widespread effect of undermining the credibility of the certification process itself, and open up the organic industry to negative media coverage, which would put further strain on the viability of organic farming generally. It’s a conundrum some organic poultry producers and organic certifying bodies in Australia have fudged, compounded by the fact that some of the dominant certification bodies themselves are commercial operations which depend on levies paid by operators (based on a percentage of turnover), giving large producers potentially extra clout as lobbyists, and thereby possibly having an influence on a “pure” industry stance – which most organic consumers would agree should be a zero tolerance of synthetic inputs.

An example of this Achilles Heal being ‘suppressed’ in the organic food market is Woolworths Macro (in-house brand) of organic chicken meat, which is labelled as ‘certified organic’ under the bud logo of Australian Certified Organic, a leading Government approved commercial certification body. Woolworths responded to our query about this misleading packaging issue (in private correspondence) that they are above board because their organic chicken is certified organic by ACO – effectively passing the buck back to their certifier.  There is no mention of the use of synthetic methionine to feed these chickens on the packaging.

AS we have seen from Woolworths’s response to our questioning of the use of synthetic feed inputs in growing Macro organic chickens, Australian Certified Organic (ACO), one of the most prominent Australian organic certification bodies, does in fact certify clients as “organic” who use synthetic methionine. In their earlier incarnation as the Biological Farmers Association they were in fact heavily involved in the push to reintroduce it into the domestic standard.

In the view of senior executive Andrew Monk, then head of standards for the association and a member of the Standards Australia committee, the methionine issue was “blown out of proportion”. He said he was sympathetic to consumer concerns, but that “in many cases industry had little choice”. Most Australian organic food consumers however would have little sympathy with this response.

The EU has had a period of allowing synthetic methionine to be included in organic poultry diets, but with the view to actively undertaking further study on organic alternatives. This period has now expired and from December 2017 onward, including non-organic protein sources in diets for organic poultry is now banned in the EU.

The US has had a similar policy and in the US The National Organic Program (NOP) has extended the moratorium period of allowance for synthetic methionine in organic poultry production - but at reduced levels. This appears to strengthen the defence of Australian Organic Network to our charge of having lax standards, but does not solve the basic paradox of feeding organic chickens petrochemical by-products and not telling Australian customers.


A number of dietary strategies can be applied in feeding organic laying hens with 100% organic ingredients and thus fulfil organic certification requirements of zero tolerance to synthetic/chemically produced inputs, but there is no doubt that it is difficult to design diets with sufficient MET and balance of other essential amino acids. Feed rations that are high in plant proteins, such as soybean meal, can be used instead of synthetic MET, but high-protein diets are not healthy for poultry or the environment. Diets containing fishmeal, milk products, and nonconventional sources of protein, such as earthworms or insects, can help provide MET, but the ingredients are expensive and, in most cases, not available in organic form. Genuine ‘free range’ poultry have more chance of eating enough Met because they have a chance of browsing insects and worms naturally, depending on the quality of the pasture.

Herbal preparations composed of single or multiple plant ingredients traditionally have been used for the health management in poultry i.e. tone up the liver, improve appetite, and increase disease resistance, but more research needs to be done to resolve the methionine issue in organic poultry farming.

Herbal methionine as a source of active methionine has been claimed to be effective on performance, cost benefit ratio, meat and feather quality of broiler chicken (Halder et al., 2007; Kumari et al., 2012) but has not become part of the solution in Australia.

Research was carried out at a poultry house in Kamthana, Bidar (KA), India indicates that herbal feed premix Methiorep can successfully replace synthetic DL methionine in feed as it has been proven to be effective in improving commercial broiler performance (growth, FCR, and livability parameters).

Studies have suggested it may be possible to develop microbial sources of methionine that would meet the criteria for organic use but since genetic modification is not allowed this will require isolation of naturally occurring methionine ‘over-producers’. Application of such cultures may work as external sources of pure methionine but it appears it may be more cost effective to develop a probiotic approach, either by directly administering such cultures or enriching for members of the gastrointestinal population already present that have this ability.  (Saengkerdsub et al.; 2013).

Interest in Europe is growing in the potential of insect feed. The growing optimism follows comments by EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who told a recent conference that the Commission was looking to authorise the use of insect proteins in feed for poultry. Insect producer Protix has announced it is joining forces with Hendrix Genetics, a global poultry and other species genetics company, to develop an insect breeding programme. The chickens will celebrate this development!

American poultry producers have also been doing work on feed alternatives.

To meet his chickens’ methionine requirements without using supplements, Eric Sideman, director of technical services for Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, adds organic whole wheat, organic whole oats, alfalfa meal, sunflower meal, fish meal and limestone to an organic corn-soy meal base. He also suggests sesame or safflower as possible alternatives, but sunflower, sesame, and safflower suffer from a similar lack of supply.  ‘Expelled’ sunflower seed (oil extracted) has a relatively high digestible Met content (Van Krimpen et al., 2016) and is the most commonly available organic option.


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How to fulfill EU requirements to feed organic laying hens 100% organic ingredients

  1. M. van KrimpenF. LeenstraV. Maurer M. Bestman The Journal of Applied Poultry Research, Volume 25, Issue 1, 1 March 2016, Pages 129-138, https://doi.org/10.3382/japr/pfv048

Anne Fanatico, Ph.D, Research Associate, USDA ARS : Organic Poultry Production: Providing Adequate Methionine. Published 2010 Updated July 2016 by Kevin Ellis, NCATAgriculture Specialist ©NCATIP363

Possibility for Probiotic Sources of Methionine for Organic Poultry Nutritional Supplementation: An Early Review; Center for Food Safety and Department of Food Science, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, 72704, USA; 2013Suwat Saengkerdsub, Corliss A O’Bryan1Philip G Crandall1 and Steven C Ricke:

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