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The Cruel Irony of Organic Standards

BY Terry J. Allen

The organic movement must incorporate compassion into organic standards and allow the rare, regulated use of antibiotics.

The triumph of purist ideology over compassion and science means suffering and death for organic farm animals across America.

The week-old dairy calf, gangly and still, lay on a barn floor, her long-lashed eyes rolled back to expose the blue-white rim. The next morning, when I went to help my neighbor with his newborns, the calf was dead.

Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations defining organic standards mandate that if this calf had gotten one dose of antibiotics, even to save her life, she could never give organic milk–even after the two years it takes for her to become a milker, and even though neither she nor her milk would retain any trace of antibiotics.

Farmers are not generally callous or cruel, but neither are they sentimental. Organic standards mandate that they take all measures to save the life of an animal, but treatment strategies can be subjective, and loss of organic status factors into a farmer’s decision. After all, antibiotics don’t always work, and sometimes animals recover without them. So decent farmers wait while an animal suffers, and crosses that line past which no intervention can reverse the slide to death.

“Yes, I have seen examples of when producers had a little too much optimism,” says Brian Baker, director of Alfred State College’s Institute for Sustainablity. He opposed the 100 percent antibiotic ban when it was proposed, and would like to see a reasoned debate on the issue.

A few weeks later, another calf started to fail. Too weak to suck, Jordan let milk from the bottle leak into my hand as I cupped her head. The farmer weighed his options, and muttering in frustration and anger, reached for the antibiotics and the phone. He injected the calf and called the organic standards regulator to report that Jordan was no longer organic. The next morning the calf was back on her feet, but ruined as an organic milker. With that one shot, an ethical farmer lost much of his investment in breeding and maintaining quality organic stock.

Clearly, antibiotic overuse in conventional agriculture is a disaster. Daily low-dose antibiotics make animals grow larger and quicker, and they hold off disease and infection so livestock can survive the crowded, filthy conditions at industrial farms and feedlots. But as the 15-17 million pounds of subtherapeutic antibiotics that America’s livestock consume annually breed resistance in virulent pathogens, the antibiotics humans rely on are failing. In 2006, the U.S. government reported that 1.7 million hospital infections that year caused more than 90,000 patient deaths, up from 13,300 in 1992.

In the 1990s, an embattled organics movement defeated agribusiness’s attempt to allow all drugs, toxic pesticides and genetic engineering to fall under the proposed USDA organic label. Some speculate that when agribusiness saw that its strategy to eviscerate standards would fail, it began advocating regulations so strict that few farmers would adopt them, and those that did would become uncompetitive.

While some European and Canadian organic regulations are tighter, farmers there can administer therapeutic antibiotics as long as the animal is treated rarely, and is withdrawn from meat or milk production for twice the time the drug remains in its system.

Some organic proponents now quietly recognize that the 100 percent ban on antibiotics needs to be re-examined, especially in light of a growing move to incorporate animal welfare into the discussion.

Others remain pure. Allowing one-time therapeutic antibiotics is “a slippery slope,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, and would “undermine consumer confidence in organics. It’s the same position [I have] as on human vaccines. They are dangerous, and that’s why I didn’t vaccinate my kid.”

But when I took an unscientific survey at the Montpelier, Vt., farmers market, every consumer I asked assumed that organic livestock are, and should be, getting antibiotics for life-threatening diseases, and that a “no-antibiotics” label meant no subtherapeutic use. Organic farmers I asked want the regulation changed, and several locavore producers said they would not go organic, precisely because they wanted the option of treating a sick animal without risking financial hardship.

It’s time for the organic movement to incorporate science and compassion into organic standards and allow the rare, regulated use of life-saving antibiotics. 

Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

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