Surprise: Antibiotics Are Allowed in Organic Apple and Pear Farming

Yep, your organic fruit might be harboring a secret.

Twilight Greenaway is an Oakland-based writer and editor who has been working on the web since 2000.

UPDATE: The National Organic Standards Board decided to stick with the plan to end the exemption that allows for the use of antibiotics in organic apple and pear orchards next year.

Jack Jones (who asked that his real name not be used) takes care of a small organic pear orchard for a farmer south of the San Francisco Bay Area. This spring, as the trees have begun to blossom, he’s been spraying them with a small amount of the antibiotic tetracycline to prevent a disease called fire blight. 

Last year, when the perfect storm of warm, wet air first brought the bacteria to the farm, he tried removing infected branches and getting rid of cover crops, which were providing nitrogen that fed the disease. But to no avail—the disease had established itself in the trunks.

“It just devastated the orchard. We lost 80 percent of our trees in one season,” he recalls.

About half of the remaining 90 trees were a variety called Warren, which is immune to fire blight. For the rest, he decided to spray the tetracycline as a preventative measure, and is replanting the rest of the orchard with other varieties that are resistant to the disease.

It may shock you to discover that antibiotic use in organic apple and pear orchards is routine. In fact, tetracycline has been on the national list of synthetic production materials allowed in organic farming since the mid-’90s. Even so, antibiotic use in fruit production has largely gone unnoticed by the public, until now. With more focus on the larger issue of antibiotics in animal production—which accounts for nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics sold every year in the U.S.—a growing number of consumer advocates are sounding the alarm.

The growth in public awareness coincides with internal debate about the future of antibiotic use in organic orchards. Ahead of The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) (the decision-making body behind the federal organic standards) meeting this week in Portland, Oregon, where members will discuss just how much longer farmers like Jones can continue routine use of antibiotics like tetracycline or streptomycin to control fire blight, several issues remain unresolved.

Debate pits consumer watchdog groups against farmers

There is an antibiotic-free alternative to controlling fire blight, a German product called Blossom Protect, which has had promising results in field trials. This is the first season it will be available for widespread commercial use, but growers simply don’t know if it will be reliable enough to effectively control the bacteria.

In the meantime, advocacy groups such as the Consumers Union, the Center for Food Safety, and Food & Water Watch have petitioned the NOSB to preserve the current phase-out date of 2014 for the antibiotics. Growers and scientists are pushing for an extension, which would allow for the use of tetracycline and similar drugs to control fire blight until 2016. 

Organic fruit farmer and NOSB member Zea Sonnabend is not optimistic that farmers will have other viable options by 2014. “Nobody wants to [use antibiotics], but on the other hand, farmers have not had enough political clout to get research funded for alternatives until now,” she told TakePart.

Blossom Protect, which Sonnabend says has done well in university tests in California and Oregon, hasn’t proven very effective in Michigan, a big apple-growing state. “If farmers only have one season [to test Blossom Protect], that’s not enough time for them to figure out all of the details—when to spray, how many times, how much to spray, etc. All that stuff takes experimentation on each farm.”

If the phase out happens before farmers feel confident, Sonnabend worries some will drop their organic certification to save their orchards.

“That will create a difficult choice for consumers because organic fruit can still be produced in areas where the fire blight disease hasn’t arrived yet, such as China, Argentina and Chile,” she adds.

These antibiotics were originally placed on the exception list with the understanding that they would be phased out eventually, but their exemption has been renewed several times since the federal standards went into effect in 2000. Consumer advocates say a 14-year exemption by the National Organic Standards Board allowing antibiotic use in organic apple and pear production provided more than enough time for growers to find alternative solutions to fire blight.

“I’m not saying this isn’t a difficult issue that farmers face, and it’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to this point, but when is enough enough? At a certain point you have to call this use of antibiotics, which has gone on since 1995, into question,” says Lisa J. Bunin, Ph.D., Organic Policy Director for Center for Food Safety.

For those who say fighting fire blight is too difficult without the help of antibiotics, Bunin counters by pointing out that it’s already being done successfully by growers who export to Canada and the European Union, where such usage is prohibited.

“There are a large number of growers not using antibiotics because they want to sell to the EU market,” she says.

In Washington state, the nation’s leading producer of organic apples and pears, about 20 percent of orchards are antibiotic free, according to David Granatstein. A former organic farmer and head researcher at the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, Granatstein has spent a great deal of his 25-year tenure studying the effects of fire blight on the industry there (he also keeps a detailed website where he collects data on the topic).

He says that even some of the farmers Bunin points to have had to give up their EU organic certification in bad fire blight years.

“For our growers to export to Europe, they have to prove they haven’t used antibiotics for three years. If they have a bad fire blight year and they have to use an antibiotic, they can still sell their products as certified organic in the U.S. If you’re on a site that doesn’t have a lot of fire blight, you can say, ‘what the heck’ and take that risk,” he says.

But if antibiotics are phased out before a viable alternative proves to be effective industry-wide, he says, those export growers will have to default to selling their fruit into the conventional market for three years. “The penalty would be much, much bigger,” says Granastein, who echoes Sonnabend’s concerns about the potential shrinking of the organic fruit industry, pointing to polling his center did with Washington farmers.

The research [PDF link] reads: 

Organic growers in Washington State were surveyed about their likely response to the loss of oxytetracycline in 2010 and 2011. Only 20-25% of the growers said such a loss would have little or no effect. When asked if they could effectively control fire blight in a year of high risk without antibiotics, 82% said no.

It turns out that some varieties are more resistant to fire blight than others. Unfortunately, those more at risk are the ones consumers know and love most—apples like Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Pink Ladies and Granny Smiths. Pears that are most susceptible include favorites like D’Anjou, Bartlett, Bosc, and Comice. Will consumers be willing to switch to unfamiliar varieties like Winesaps or Melrose apples? It’s hard to say. But rather than take that risk, Granastein says some organic apple and pear growers have chosen to exit the organic market instead.

“One of the largest organic apple growers in Michigan has begun to transition out of organic because he doesn’t feel the tools are there,” he says.

Residue and resistance

Antibiotic residue on your fruit isn’t the foremost concern in this fight. While definitive information on how much of the drugs remain on fruit is still forthcoming, Granatstein has done some his own research. He and his researchers looked at fruit from trees that were sprayed with tetracycline during bloom time, or around 120 days before harvest.

“We’re not finding residues,” he says. “We haven’t published the data, but that’s what the initial results show. If you apply it 60 days before harvest you already have an apple that’s an inch and a half. There’s a surface to capture that spray. But the blossom captures it and falls off. This material, to my understanding, doesn’t move around in the plant, so it’s not going to be present in the developing fruit.”

What we do know is that fire blight has become resistant to streptomycin, which had been used in orchards since the 1950s. Consumer advocates are concerned that this will also happen with routine tetracycline use.

“To the degree that fire blight is becoming resistant to these antibiotics, it’s their own race to the bottom,” says Consumers Union’s Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability.

What’s really at stake here, she says, is that allowing this fruit to carry the organic label is in fact compromising the term, and watering down the high standards that accompany it.

The lack of awareness and its impact on consumer expectation is what’s important to Rangan. An online survey of nearly 1,000 people conducted by The Consumer Reports National Research Center found that more than 80 percent of the respondents said they either didn’t think (68 percent) or didn’t know (17 percent) that antibiotics are used to treat disease in apple and pear trees. Once they were told, more than half of consumers said they don’t think the fruit should be labeled as organic.

“Consumers don’t know that antibiotics are being used in organic apple and pear production. At the very least, they should come up with a different label or disclose that use on the package. Call it ‘Organic-plus-Antibiotics’,” she says. “We think apple and pear growers who don’t use antibiotics should be able to differentiate their product, and right now, they can’t do that.”

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