Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare? Part 3

Here’s the final portion of my paper: Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare?

If you’ve missed the other posts, you can check out part 1, part 2,  or read the entire paper here.



Conflict Between the Organic Approach and Welfare Ideals
Despite measures taken to promote prevention, a certain amount of disease is permissible in a healthy ecosystem and the restrictions placed on organic producers by both their certification requirements and ethos can create dilemma’s that could potentially harm animals. Several classic examples of species specific situations have been examined where the animal welfare approach taken by organic producers can be considered detrimental to the animal.

It should be noted that while there is evidence that there is a reluctance to use prohibited medications and chemicals to treat disease on organic farms (Vaarst and Bennedsgaard, 2001), both the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and IFOAM standards explicitly state that organic livestock producers must not withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve that animals organic status (IFOAM, 2005; National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a; Riddle, 2008, 2012).
Management of mastitis in organic dairies is a commonly discussed example of when health of the individual and a reluctance to accept the financial loss associated with antibiotic use can potentially harm the animal. Herd health, in general, has not been shown to be significantly different between organic and conventional dairy herds, and some data suggests that the incidence of disease may actually be lower in organic herds, though the reasons for this are unknown (Lund and Algers, 2003; Lund, 2006). Interestingly, the ban on antibiotics for clinical use is more of a concern within U.S. boarders, as the majority of certification standards in the European Union allow antibiotic use to treat clinical disease without jeopardizing the organic status of the animal (Ruegg, 2009). However, the strict FDA guidelines for organic milk production not only prohibit the use of antibiotics in organic livestock, but do not allow the use of any compounds with an antimicrobial effect that are not approved by the FDA for organic production (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a). Currently, there are zero antimicrobials approved for use in organic animals (Ruegg, 2009). This leaves organic dairy producers extremely limited in their options for treatment when faced with a cow that has mastitis. With few options available, Zwald et al. (2004) were able to find that farmers who switched to organic production began to seek information on treatments from other organic farmers as opposed to veterinarians. This trend is not seen in countries where antibiotic options are available to organic dairy farmers (Hamilton et al., 2006).

So what options are available to organic dairy producers in the U.S.? Once again, prevention is key, but research has shown that rates of mastitis are similar between organic and conventional dairy operations (Lund and Algers, 2003; Lund, 2006). This indicates that treatment must be part of a management plan, even if the organic ethos prevents any attempts to interfere with natural processes through antimicrobial intervention. Certain drugs are available for use on the CFR’s approved substances list with increased withdrawal times to maintain the high standards expected in organic milk production (Riddle, 2008; National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a). These drugs include certain anti-inflammatory drugs that would be useful in treating fever and inflammation associated with mastitis. Beyond pharmaceuticals, therapeutic care including frequent milking is a recognized way to discourage bacterial growth within the affected quarters. Combined with approved anti-inflammatory drugs, frequent milking and supportive care constitutes a common mastitis treatment on organic dairies in the United States (Ruegg, 2009).

Many organic farmers will also attempt to utilize complementary and alternative medicines; however, almost all of the products available have not been evaluated in peer reviewed studies for efficacy. Immunoboost, a USDA licensed immune stimulant sold in the U.S., has been evaluated but has not shown to have any significant effect on the treatment of mastitis (Ruegg, 2009). Other various remedies including peppermint, aloe, and garlic have been utilized by organic farmers as intramammary treatments, however the efficacy of these options is doubted, and their use is prohibited by the FDA (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a). It appears that without recovery using simple supportive care, any medical intervention necessary to prevent unnecessary pain or distress for non-responsive mastitis cases will result in the loss of a producing animal for that organic operation. This creates a potential welfare risk, as the USDA organic requirements do not specify a point when prohibited treatments must be used, and the decision to discontinue organic treatment resides solely with the farmer.
Poultry producers face a distinctive management change when converting to organic as free choice medicated feeds containing antibiotics are commonly used to manage disease and promote growth (Love et al., 2010). Organic poultry is also currently under increased pressure from consumers (Love et al., 2012) to provide a safe and antibiotic free product, which could indicate an increased reluctance to treat conditions using pharmaceuticals. Following the prevention management strategy, organic poultry producers may use a variety of feed supplements including probiotics, prebiotics, organic acids, and plant extracts that have had minimal and sometimes contradictory efficacy reviews (Griggs and Jacob, 2005). Once again, treatment needs to be a key part of the management strategy of the organic producer, and the increased public scrutiny over medication use in poultry has the potential to encourage famers to withhold medication as has been shown in other species (Lund, 2006).

One of the most contested animal welfare debates surrounding organic poultry is regarding the space required by the USDA regulations to remain organic (Kijlstra and Eijck, 2006). While the law only requires year-round access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight (appropriate for the species, age, and climate) (National Archives and Records Administration, 2012a); organic farmers have adopted the term “free-range”, which unfortunately like the word “natural,” has no legal meaning. Nonetheless, open access to runs follows the third of Frasier et al.’s welfare ideals in allowing chickens to exhibit natural behaviors and thus have better welfare. The trade-off, however, is that while we have defined the major focus of disease management in organic operations as prevention based, free ranging chickens are more susceptible to predation, outbreaks of cannibalism, parasite exposure, coccidiosis and ascarid infections, and interactions with wild fowl that transmit dangerous diseases such as avian influenza (Verhoog et al., 2004; Kijlstra and Eijck, 2006; Lund, 2006). In order to keep with organic standards, all of these animals must continue to have access to the outdoors, and prohibited pharmaceuticals cannot be fed to treat outbreaks of disease or treat the higher rate of parasites that are found on organic operations (Lund, 2003). Clearly, should there be an outbreak of disease or cannibalism, an ethical dilemma is created between the first two ideals concerning the physical and mental needs of the animal, and the third to maintain natural conditions.

The various dilemmas discussed indicate that organic producers face additional pressure, both financially and in public relations, to avoid the use of treatments that would compromise the organic status of that animal. However, prioritizing animal welfare to include aspects beyond the scope of the clinical health of individual animals can potentially change the way welfare is perceived by conventional farmers and the general public. If an ecocentric rather than an individualistic perspective is considered, and positive experiences can be provided for the animal by indulging its natural behaviors and ecological niche, perhaps some stress events like occasional infections are an acceptable trade-off. Given that a higher incidence of disease has not been found, and that organic producers are required by law not to restrict care to maintain an organic status, it can be determined that organic livestock production does not encourage decisions that negatively impact animal welfare. However, it is recommended U.S. should adopt the EU policy of allowing antibiotics to be used in clinical cases without removing the organic status of that animal. With adequately increased withdrawal times in place to reflect the strict requirements that define organic products and enough consumer education, the organic market should recognize and accept the benefits of this policy change. Livestock would benefit by receiving more aggressive medical intervention as financial pressure not to treat animals could be alleviated as it has been in the EU (Ruegg, 2009), and having prescription antibiotics available as a treatment option could encourage more contact with veterinarians instead of neighbors to discuss animal health. Additional research is needed to support this position that could come from data determining if financial and public pressure are enough to encourage farmers to withhold treatments. In that case, additional actions such as stricter enforcement of the law may be necessary to promote a higher standard of care for organic animals.

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