In the spring of 2013, online petitions were making the rounds via social media asking the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to stop allowing the use of antibiotics in the growing of organic apples and pears.
The petition itself came as a shock to many consumers (me included) who had absolutely no idea that USDA organic regulations allowed the use of antibiotics anywhere in organic agriculture!
What’s more, the use of the antibiotics streptomycin and tetracycline have been permitted for spraying in organic apple and pear orchards ever since the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which established the framework to create National Organic Standards!
That’s a loooooong time to be feeding organic apples and pears to your children that were potentially sprayed with antibiotics and not even be aware of it, wouldn’t you agree?
Antibiotic spraying is used to control a bacterial disease called fire blight on organic apple and pear trees. Fire blight can infect apple and pear flowers and if not controlled, can spread and possibly kill the tree itself.
Any synthetic materials such as antibiotics that are permitted in organics, however, must be reviewed every five years by a vote of the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB).
The NOSB typically meets twice per year and in the months prior to its Spring 2013 meeting in Portland, Oregon, consumers rallied to oppose a petition to again extend the use of antibiotics in organic apples and pears until October 21, 2016.
A survey conducted by the Cornucopia Institute found that 56% of organic apple growers don’t even use antibiotics, some of whom had been successfully growing organic apples for two decades or more.
The majority of organic orchardists confirmed that fire blight in apples can be controlled without antibiotics although it is certainly more challenging and potentially more expensive.
Pears are more naturally susceptible to fire blight than apples and controlling it without antibiotics has proven more difficult.
The reality is that numerous US growers have found ways to grow popular varieties of apples, pears, and Asian pears without antibiotics because those who wished to export to Europe must verify that they have not used antibiotics at any time in the previous three years.
European regulations prohibit antibiotics on all crops.
Ahead of the NOSB vote, large retailers were predictably in favor of continuing antibiotic spraying warning that only tasteless varieties of apples and pears resistant to fire blight would survive.
Glen Morris, NOSB panel member and director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, warned that antibiotic use in agriculture is a threat to human health as pathogens develop antibiotic resistance causing streptomycin and tetracycline to be useless as medicines.
Consumer pressure was strongly against the extension of antibiotic use in organics no doubt due to the success of social media outlets spreading online petitions requesting the NOSB to stop the practice (photo right).
Ultimately, the measure to extend the use of antibiotics in organic apples and pears failed by a single vote even though the majority of the NOSB panel voted in favor of antibiotics.
Nine NOSB members voted to extend the use of antibiotics in the growing of apples and pears and six voted no. Because a two-thirds vote was required (not a simple majority), the petition to maintain tetracycline on the list of approved substances for use in organic agriculture failed and will be prohibited after October 14, 2013.
Is this the end of the story with regard to antibiotic spraying in organic apple and pear orchards in the United States?
Not so fast. The NOSB has asked the USDA’s National Organic Program to investigate its authority to allow the emergency use of tetracycline for fire blight after 2014.
What would constitute an “emergency” use? Nobody knows at this point. Could consumers be the victims of a USDA Organic bait and switch? Only time will tell for sure and 2014 is a long way off.
The takeaway? Consumers wishing to avoid antibiotics in organic apples and pears need to ask questions and become familiar with the growing practices of the specific orchards they choose to patronize (translation, buy local if at all possible) at least through 2014 and perhaps beyond if the NOSB is successful in obtaining the power to grant “emergency” spraying.
At this point, there is no reason to believe the power won’t be granted.