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posted October 31, 2007

Views on Antibiotics and Dairy

The market has received an invitation to provide feedback on acceptable standards for "withdrawal times for antibiotic use in dairy animals in Canada" (i.e. how long after antibiotic treatment for an illness the milk of a dairy animal must remain out of the organic stream), and to pass along the opportunity to others who might like to be included in this consultation. We thought some of you might like to learn more about the issue, and we would like to provide a little background, including some diverse opinions from farmers. This isn't at the level of expert knowledge, so if you're really interested, you may want to do further research.

The rules vary widely in different parts of Canada right now--and even among different certifying bodies within our province--with Ontario's OCPP-ProCert standard highest at "lifetime", and Canada's national standard (and Quebec's) at 14 days.

So what's the situation for farmers?

To start with, organic farmers don't use any antibiotics routinely, and the animals on their farms get the kind of space and care that leads to really good health, resulting in fewer illnesses. Smaller herds mean it's easier to observe animals more closely and detect problems quickly. All great. But what happens in the event of serious illness?

A farmer can't risk the health of the whole herd, and for some farmers that's reason enough to forget about going for organic certification even if their practices are close to certifiable. There's also a fear of having to destroy animals if effective treatment isn't available. On a certified organic dairy farm, if an illness is life-threatening, antibiotics can be used, but "lifetime withdrawal" (or a standard with a long time period) would then require the farmer to keep that animal's milk out of organic collection. Usually that would result in selling the animal involved to a conventional farm. Keeping a non-productive animal for very extended periods, or life, just isn't an option. There are other acceptable treatment options, though. Ute Zell for example, uses homeopathic remedies, though she understands why some farmers would feel there are times they need antibiotics.

By the way, conventional milk is also monitored for the presence of "inhibitors", including antibiotics. Some common antibiotics have a 72 hour withdrawal time stated, with no residue detectable by the testing that's used beyond that window.

Since we don't have cows' milk at the market, I called my friend Kathie Groenewegen, who grew up on her parents' (conventional) dairy farm north of Kingston, now an organic one that she operates with her husband, Francis. Kathie has seen the increased health of the cows brought about by organic practices such as time outside every day, less pressure on the cows to produce high volumes and a healthier diet, and says visits from the vet are now very rare for them. She also uses homeopathic treatments, and feels that allowing antibiotics as an option is too great a temptation, too open to misuse and mistakes. The issue has been a heated one among producers; her strong view is that top-notch organic standards are essential, and she feels able to thrive as a producer who meets these standards.

What expectations are fair? What price are we willing to pay for the food we eat, and how should its true cost be measured? If you want to participate in the poll, please reply with comments to (Identify yourself as a consumer.)

For more information, see Consultation on minimum antibiotic withdrawal times (Dairy), a report by the Organic Council of Ontario.

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