The National Organic Standards Board met April 9-11 in Portland, OR to vote on issues of critical importance to the organic community.  Here is a summary of the meeting.

apple blossom ANTIBIOTICS: The use of tetracycline, a critically important antibiotic in human medicine, will be prohibited in organic apple and pear production after 2014.  The Board heard from the medical community that the risk of losing tetracycline to treat infections in humans was too high—every time an antibiotic is used in an agricultural setting, it poses a risk of human pathogens developing resistance to that antibiotic.  Read more below.

OTHER INGREDIENTS: The Board also dealt with the “other ingredients” issue, to ensure that all ingredients that end up in organic food will be reviewed to the criteria in the organic law.  This policy came at the urging of the USDA, which stated unequivocally during the meeting that all ingredients that end up in organic food must either be organic or be on the National List of allowed materials.  This was in response to several legal complaints filed by The Cornucopia Institute against organic food producers whose products, including organic baby food, included unapproved synthetic ingredients.

CONVENTIONAL INGREDIENTS:  The Board rejected petitions for conventional barley betafiber and conventional sugar beet fiber in organic foods.

SYNTHETIC CROP INPUTS: The Board rejected two petitions for synthetic inputs to be used in organic crop production: a broad-spectrum fungicide, with potentially negative effects on soil health, and a synthetic growth promoter.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to prohibit tetracycline, an antibiotic also used in human medicine, which had been allowed in organic apple and pear production for nearly 20 years.  The vote was, according to many NOSB members, one of the most difficult they have faced.

Some organic apple and pear growers, who have done a tremendous service to the environment and public health by eliminating the use of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, occasionally require the use of antibiotics to protect their trees from potentially devastating fire blight infection.

Concerned with the health of their trees and orchards, and their livelihoods that depend on these trees, they spoke with great passion and conviction in favor of allowing antibiotics for another couple of years.

The NOSB members also heard from two physicians with expertise in infectious disease who spoke unequivocally of the critical importance of ensuring that tetracycline remain available to physicians to treat humans.  They stated, without doubt, that every application of tetracycline, including in an orchard setting, poses a risk that antibiotic-resistant genes will be transferred, ultimately, to human pathogens, rendering tetracycline ineffective in treating human patients.

With this vote, NOSB members knew that both outcomes could have potentially devastating effects.  Cornucopia felt that keeping tetracycline allowed in organic apple production could not be ethically justified given the potential risk to losing one of the most critical medicines available to physicians to treat human infectious disease.

We also felt that consumer confidence in organics is critical to the entire organic community.  Consumers, who are increasingly realizing that antibiotics are used in organic apple and pear production, understandably feel betrayed.  And the reputation of the organic label suffers.  Keeping consumer trust in the organic label is vital for ensuring the future of all organics.

Those who supported keeping tetracycline allowed in organic production painted a grim picture of the potential consequences of disallowing tetracycline: organic orchardists “ripping out” infected trees or converting to conventional production on a massive scale (where widespread use of antibiotics is allowed), leading to the increase in price for organic apples.

But Cornucopia also conducted a nationwide survey of organic orchardists to learn if that grim picture was accurate.  Of the apple growers who responded to the survey, only 24% have ever used tetracycline, which lessened our concerns that an entire segment of the organic industry would crumble with the decision to prohibit tetracycline.  Finally, preventive measures are already available, and more will be available in the near future.

Ultimately, Cornucopia’s efforts to support the phase-out of tetracycline in organic production after 2014 were based on a careful weighing of the various concerns.  We believe that human medicine needs tetracycline’s continued effectiveness, and the organic industry needs consumer trust in the organic label, more than a segment of apple producers need antibiotics.

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