Natural Foods Merchandiser

USDA mulls synthetic substances in organic meat

New regulations for the production of organic meat, poultry and dairy products could be enacted soon.

In late July the National Organic Standards Board proposed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture allow 20 synthetic substances in organic livestock production and processing. They included medications to treat conditions such as diarrhea, fever, and udder and pulmonary edema (swelling), as well as one sanitizer, a mold inhibitor and excipients, which improve drug delivery. USDA accepted 12 of the recommended substances, and is accepting public comment on the proposal.

"The list of medications that are allowed for livestock producers currently is very small—there aren't many tools in the toolbox—so I understand the need for adding more medications to relieve pain and suffering," said Jim Riddle, former chairman of the NOSB.

"Predominantly, it appears to me that these are very controlled treatment applications and almost all of them have to be administered under the auspices of an accredited veterinarian," said Dennis Stiffler, executive vice president of food safety and quality assurance at Coleman Natural Foods, a Golden, Colo., manufacturer of natural and organic meats. "We're looking at them to see if any of them gives us any extra heartburn."

Stiffler noted that if an animal gets sick, producers are obligated to treat it. "This [proposal] provides the opportunity under those unique circumstances not to lose the organic status."

The biggest challenge, Stiffler said, may be consumer perception about the purity of the product. "There'll be some people who put a spin on this, saying 'What you think is organic is not organic,' but I think if we stress that it is USDA-regulated, we are using third-party certifiers, there are checks and balances, and we're providing a good organic product," people will understand that.

Riddle, however, took issue with USDA's blanket acceptance of the 12 substances. NOSB had recommended that the withdrawal time for some medications—the amount of time between the last dose and the time when the animal's meat or milk can safely be consumed—be double what the Food and Drug Administration requires for conventional meat production. In other instances, NOSB recommended that medications be used only for emergency treatment. USDA rejected these restrictions, noting that FDA could not have two separate labeling criteria.

"By abandoning the recommendations of the board, they're actually not following the outcomes of our deliberations—they're essentially changing the meaning. Some of these materials may not have been approved [by NOSB] if there was not that requirement as part of our vote," Riddle said.

Stiffler was less concerned. "If you truly understand the FDA process, there's a huge confidence period in the withdrawal period that FDA proposes. After that withdrawal period, there's no detectable residue [of the drug in the meat]," he said.

The Organic Trade Association does not yet have an official position on the proposal, said Holly Givens, a spokeswoman for the group. OTA is soliciting its membership for input on the matter. "The official position would be finalized probably just prior to the end of the comment period." The comment period ends Sept. 15. To view the proposal in its entirety or submit comments, visit, and click on Federal Register Notices.

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