Including Fishmeal in Organic Poultry Diets

Organic Agriculture November 06, 2013 Print Friendly and PDF

eOrganic author:

Dr. Jacquie Jacob Ph.D., University of Kentucky

NOTE: Before using any feed ingredient make sure that the ingredient is listed in your Organic System Plan and approved by your certifier. Fishmeal is treated as a feed supplement in organic production, and must be "natural" and contain no prohibited substances, but it does not need to be certified organic.

NOTE: Brand names appearing in this article are examples only. No endorsement is intended, nor is criticism implied of similar products not mentioned.


Fishmeal has been included in poultry diets for decades. There are two basic sources of fishmeal. The first is fishery waste that is a byproduct of processing fish caught specifically for human consumption, e.g. salmon and tuna. Also included in this source are fish raised for human consumption such as catfish—popular in the southern United States (Dale, 2001). The second source includes fish caught specifically for production of fishmeal, e.g., herring, menhaden, and pollack. In the United States, the primary fish used for fishmeal is menhaden—typically caught in Atlantic coastal waters from Maine to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. Menhaden oil is used in paints, soaps, and lubricants, and is also an ingredient in margarine in Europe. The fish are ground, cooked, and processed. Fishmeal is unstable and can spontaneously combust if not properly treated. Fishmeal used for animal feed must be stabilized with an antioxidant to preserve its quality. The most common antioxidant in commercial fishmeal production, ethoxyquin, is not approved for use in organic poultry diets.

Fishmeal may be used as a feed additive or feed supplement at or below the amount needed for adequate nutrition for poultry at their specific stage of life. Fishmeal may be preserved with natural substances and those that appear on the National List for use in livestock feed production, provided such substances are not restricted to prevent this use and are permitted by FDA regulations. NOP Rule: 205.237(a), 205.237(b)(2) & 205.238(a)(2). (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2000).

§ 205.237 Livestock feed.

(a) The producer of an organic livestock operation must provide livestock with a total feed ration composed of agricultural products, including pasture and forage, that are organically produced and handled by operations certified to the NOP, except as provided in §205.236(a)(2)(i), except, that, synthetic substances allowed under §205.603 and non-synthetic substances not prohibited under §205.604 may be used as feed additives and feed supplements, Provided, that, all agricultural ingredients included in the ingredients list, for such additives and supplements, shall have been produced and handled organically.

(b) The producer of an organic operation must not: (2) Provide feed supplements or additives in amounts above those needed for adequate nutrition and health maintenance for the species at its specific stage of life;

§205.238 Livestock health care practice standard.

(a) The producer must establish and maintain preventive livestock health care practices, including: (2) Provision of a feed ration sufficient to meet nutritional requirements, including vitamins, minerals, protein and/or amino acids, fatty acids, energy sources, and fiber (ruminants);

Fishmeal that is preserved with synthetic substances that do not appear on the National List for use in livestock feed production or with natural substances not permitted by FDA regulations are prohibited for use as a feed additive or feed supplement. NOP Rule: 205.105(a) & 205.237(b)(6). (USDA, 2000).

§ 205.105 Allowed and prohibited substances, methods, and ingredients in organic production and handling.

To be sold or labeled as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s)),” the product must be produced and handled without the use of:

(a) Synthetic substances and ingredients, except as provided in §205.601 or §205.603;

§ 205.237 Livestock feed.

(b) The producer of an organic operation must not: (6) Use feed, feed additives, and feed supplements in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act;

An example of a 'natural' antioxidant is Naturox® which contains:

  • A blend of tocopherols (vitamin E) and rosemary extract to counter the free radicals that start the oxidation process, causing fishmeal to go rancid
  • Lecithin, a chelator that helps prevent the formation of free radicals

While menhaden fishmeal is most commonly used, herring, anchovy, redfish and whitefish meal are also available. Herring and anchovies are oil-type fish that are handled much like menhaden. Redfish meal is the filleting waste from ocean perch, which is not an oil fish. Redfish are caught for human consumption off the coast of eastern Canada and the United States. After the fillets are removed, the heads and racks are ground, cooked and dried to produce redfish meal. The term whitefish refers to cod, haddock, hake, flounder, and pollack. These are also caught for human consumption, and the byproducts are converted to fishmeal for use in animal feeds.

Unfortunately, fishmeal can also be a source of foodborne pathogens, in particular Salmonella species. If not properly stored, the protein in fishmeal begins to break down, resulting in increased levels of biogenic amines such as histamine. Consumption of high levels of histamine can cause gizzard erosion in chickens. The addition of antioxidants is important to control the production of biogenic amines.


Fishmeal is an excellent source of protein for poultry. It contains a good balance of amino acids, including methionine and lysine. In addition to high levels of essential amino acids, fishmeal has a good balance of unsaturated fatty acids, certain minerals (available phosphorus), and vitamins (A, D, and B-complex).

The composition of fishmeal will vary depending on the species of fish used, the method with which it was processed, and whether or not the fillets were removed prior to processing. Anchovies and menhaden are processed whole, while the fillets are removed from tuna before processing. Because the fillets of tuna are removed before production, tuna fishmeal, in general, is lower in protein and higher in mineral content (Zaviezo and Dale, 1994). Tuna fishmeal has also been shown to be lower in metabolizable energy content.

Table 1. Comparing the nutrient content of the various fishmeals available in the U.S. (Batal and Dale, 2010)

Ingredient Dry Matter % Energy kcal/lb Crude Protein % Crude Fat (ether extract)
Crude Fiber % Calcium % Methionine % Lysine %
Fishmeal, herring, Atlantic 93 1450 72.0 10.0 1.0 2.0 2.20 5.70
Fishmeal, menhaden 92 1340 62.0 9.2 1.0 4.8 1.70 4.70
Fishmeal, anchovy, Peruvian 91 1280 65.0 10.0 1.0 4.0 1.90 4.90
Fishmeal, red fish 92 1350 57.0 8.0 1.0 7.7 1.80 6.60
Fishmeal, sardine 92 1300 65.0 5.5 1.0 4.5 2.00 5.90
Fishmeal, tuna 93 1150 53.0 11.0 5.0 8.4 1.50 3.90
Fishmeal, white 91 1180 61.0 4.0 1.0 7.0 1.65 4.30

Feeding Fishmeal to Poultry

A variety of different types of fishmeal (Pacific whiting, Dover sole, Brown rock and Atlantic cod) have been used in poultry diets and, when formulated to be equal in the various essential nutrients, provide similar results (Wu et al., 1984). The tilapia industry is growing in many developing countries. Up to 50% of the crude protein in broiler diets contributed by soybean meal can be replaced with tilapia meal (Ponce and Gernat, 2002). In the southern United States, catfish meal has become increasingly available. Catfish meal is relatively high in protein (60%), calcium (8%), and phosphorus (4.2%) (Dale 2001).

Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to improve overall human health by decreasing the risk of heart disease, inhibiting the growth of prostate and breast cancer, and delaying the loss of immunological functions (Lewis et al., 2000). Omega-3 fatty acids are also important for normal fetal brain and visual development. Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is low for most Americans. Using a modified diet, it is possible to increase the omega-3 content of eggs. Three omega-3 enriched eggs provide the same level of omega-3 fatty acids as one meal of fish (Lewis et al., 2000). Such enriched eggs are one possible way to increase consumption of these important nutrients.

Howe et al. (2002) used a tuna fishmeal-based product to increase the omega-3 fatty acid content of chicken and eggs, and showed that the increased level of omega-3 fatty acids was retained after cooking. When more than 15% was used in broiler diets and 10% in layer diets, the sensory quality of the products was adversely affected. Hulan et al. (1988) obtained similar results with redfish meal.

While either flaxseed or fishmeal can be used to increase the omega-3 content of eggs, flaxseed oil increases the level of α-linolenic acid while fish oil increases the level of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (Kirubakaran et al., 2011). This was the equivalent of 15% of the complete feed.

Gonzalez-Esquerra and Leeson (2000) demonstrated that to increase the omega-3 content of chicken meat, it is only necessary to feed the fishmeal or fish oil for seven days before slaughter. They also showed that the omega-3 enrichment was higher in dark meat, indicating that the various portions accumulate omega-3 differently.


Fishmeal can vary considerably in quality, and can be a source of Salmonella contamination when included in poultry diets. In addition, high levels of fishmeal in poultry diets can result in fishy meat and eggs. The use of fishmeal, therefore, is typically restricted to 5-10% of poultry diets.

References and Citations

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.