“Organic” Rules Revised

David Cassuto

Breaking news from the AP:

The Agriculture Department is sharpening the standards for organic milk and meat.

New rules announced Friday say organic milk and meat must come from livestock that graze in pastures at least four months of the year. The old rules required only that animals have access to pasture.

The new organic rules also say 30 percent of animals’ feed must come from grazing and that ranchers must have a plan to protect soil and water quality.

The Agriculture Department has taken years to set new standards. Ranchers, food companies and consumer groups have been anxious for more specific rules surrounding what can be sold as organic.

I’ll have more to say on this after I review the new rule itself.

Newborn Calves Abused at Organic Farm

Elizabeth Bennett

Unfortunately, allegations of animal abuse at slaughterhouses have long been prevalent.  It is not, however, too often that you hear of a farm or company being punished for such cruel behavior.  Recently, an organically certified Vermont slaughterhouse called Bushway Packing Inc. was ordered to close because of their inhumane treatment of calves.  An undercover agent for the Humane Society of the United States captured various forms of animal abuse at this slaughterhouse on video.  According to the humane society, slaughterhouse employees were kicking calves, electrically prodding them, wetting them with water so that electric prodding would be more painful, improperly rendering them senseless before slaughter, and even skinning them alive.  These are typical abuse allegations against slaughterhouses commonly made by animal welfarist and rights advocates that are all too often ignored.

The calves processed at Bushway Packing were born on dairy farms and immediately torn from their mothers so that the mother’s milk would not be wasted on them.  This rendered many of them weak and unable to walk.  They were then physically abused into standing and walking so that employees can avoid prohibitions on slaughtering “downed cows.”   These calves were being produced as “bob veal,” where they were killed when less than a week old to be used in food items such as hot dogs and lunch meats, unlike regular veal production which “harvests” calves at around 4 months of age.  Keep in mind that supporting the dairy industry is, in a way, supporting the veal and bob veal industries because of the need to take calves away from their dairy cow mothers so that all their mother’s milk can be processed for human use.  Male calves are a byproduct of the dairy industry and are thus put to use in the veal industry.  For this very reason, dairy farmers were greatly worried about their financial stability in the wake of this story.   Continue reading

Antibiotics in Your Organic Lettuce and Other Tales from the Factory Farm

I’m writing a piece about CAFOs and climate change for the Animals & Society Institute, which, as you might imagine, is not a cheerful pursuit.  Still, even with all my carping about antibiotics in animal feed, I had not realized that vegetables like corn, potatoes and lettuce absorb antibiotics when fertilized with livestock manure.  Usually, one hears about antibiotic transmission through meat and dairy products.  I was even more disturbed to learn (all of this from the Environmental Health News) that eating organic offers no protection — though, given the way USDA organic certification has been canted in favor of Big Food, I should have guessed.

This information about contaminated produce comes from a 2005 University of Minnesota study where researchers planted corn, scallions and cabbage in manure-treated soil and a similar 2007 study on corn, lettuce and potatoes. In each case, the crops were found to contain antibiotics (chlortetracycline and sulfamethazine, respectively).

The reason organic certification offers no protection lies with lack of USDA restrictions on using manure from animals treated with antibiotics.  Since 90% of the drugs administered to these animals gets excreted in their urine or manure, which then gets spread on soil used to grow vegetables, the vegetables absorb the antibiotics.  Eventually, so too do we.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, animals receive over 25 million pounds of antibiotics each year in the United States.

Recommendations abound to mitigate the problem, although none have so far been implemented.  Some mitigation strategies offer significant cause for concern.  For example, some suggest high temperature composting, which can reduce antibiotic concentrations significantly.  However, it has no effect whatsoever on concentrations of sulfamethazine, a commonly administered drug.  Such proposals terrify me because, even if implemented, they will not fix the problem while likely giving Big Food a free pass to continue using antibiotics indefinitely.

Don’t get me wrong; I favor high temperature composting. It’s part of any sustainable agriculture program and one of many steps necessary to combat climate change.  However, it will not solve the antibiotic problem.

The solution to this particular problem is simple: Ban subtherapeutic antibiotic use in agriculture, much as Europe did in 2006.  The status quo is incredibly dangerous, both to humans and the environment at large.  A ban represents a straightforward solution that no one in this country with any juice will entertain.

Big Food argues that the drugs are necessary to its continued operation.  Even if that were true (which it is not — the National Research Council estimates that a ban on subtherapeutic antibiotics would increase per capita costs a mere $5-10/year), so what?  Industrial Agriculture brutalizes billions of animals in indescribable ways and forms one of the chief sources of greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4 (methane) and N2O).  It also causes widespread environmental degradation and disease, including the swine and bird flu.  I’m hard pressed to come up with a reason why its continued existence should be a national priority.

–David Cassuto