Thursday, June 21, 2012

Organic standards and animal welfare

Over on Animal Science Review, Austin J. Bouck just posted his paper, Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare? Personally, I do tend to buy organic dairy products when I can in hopes that I’m contributing to improved animal welfare, even though deep in my heart I suspect I’m doing no such thing. In veterinary school, classmates told me they avoided buying organic because of things they had seen on organic farms. I’ve argued before that the best way to ensure the welfare of the animals whose products you consume is to make your purchases at a local farmer’s market, but of course not everyone has access to those. So this question of whether organic is good for animal welfare or not is a pressing one.

Austin starts out with a discussion of terminology. The word “organic” has a legal meaning, but many producers also use terms like “natural” and “free-range,” which don’t. What do these terms mean to producers and what do they mean to consumers? I have heard veterinarians dismiss these terms as meaningless, but Austin describes a tendency among organic producers to view their ecocentric model of farm management as a way of managing their animals “naturally.” In an ecocentric model, overall sustainability of the farm and interactions with the environment take priority over individual health.

If that’s the case, what are the consequences to individual health of prioritizing the environment over the individual? Austin uses as his examples dairy cows, focusing on the use of antibiotics to treat infected udders, and chickens, focusing on the use of medication for parasite infection. In both cases, he describes the strong incentives for organic farmers to withhold treatment for disease, as once an animal has been treated with an antibiotic or antiparasitic, its products (milk, meat, or eggs) can no longer be considered organic. Austin explores alternative treatments and concludes that none are effective. He notes that in Europe, use of antibiotics and antiparasitics to treat clinical disease is legal in organic production; only preventive use is banned. He advocates a change in U.S. regulations to imitate the European model, on the reasonable theory that if incentive to withhold treatment is removed, then more sick animals will be treated.

I agree! I would have been very interested to hear some statistics about how many animals go untreated on organic farms, or how far illness on these farms might be allowed to progress before animals are treated, compared farms using conventional methods. Austin doesn’t say, and I think this is because no one really knows. It would be an interesting line of research, and possibly a necessary one if we want to get the American public fired up to support change in the current regulations. If a video of a sick cow being moved by a forklift was invigorating to the animal welfare community, maybe some videos of untreated sick animals on organic farms would be as well.

Check out the paper. It’s an interesting read.


  1. Thanks for your input DZ, I'm glad you found the paper interesting!

    I was really interested in finding that information as well, but the closest I could get was Zwald et al. comparing the rates of antibiotic use between conventional and organic dairies ( They found that there was a significantly lower amount of antibiotics used at org operations, but don't have specific data on when treatment was given or the state of the animal prior to treatment(s).

    The vague conclusion we can make is that because rates of mastitis and other disease are similar between the two kinds of management, and antibiotics aren't used as heavily in one, there either is a reduced need for antibiotic use overall, or some animals aren't receiving the care they need. Obviously we can't tell from the data available which way the case really is, but its an extremely important question to ask. I'm skeptical of any study that would try to answer that question though, as there's a huge financial incentive to support either conclusion. That data would be extremely hard to come by from willing participants, and the risk of bias in the reported result would be high.

    1. Yes, it'd be a hard study to put together for a lot of reasons, none of them scientific! This is why I'm thinking an expose might be more effective (although of course also much more disruptive). It's too bad.

  2. In Spain, organic farmers can give antibiotics and antihelmintics, but only orally, nothing injected. Try to give oral medications to free-range cows, its just imposible. The result: lots of parasites, both external and internal, and frecuent diseases in lungs and liver.
    My best friend works with an association that gives quality stamps to beef, and she NEVER eats organic meat.
    Health is a pillar for well-being, you can't have happy sick animals. And I prefer my meat free from parasites, thank you.
    And I'm not talking about milk cows, that don't get their mastitis treated until reaaaaalll bad...

    1. I'm so enthusiastic that there is non-organic, local, grass-fed dairy available in the city I just moved to. That's really what I think the right answer is. The organic standards in the US are just not the right answer if you care about animal welfare, so far as I can tell. Next we need third-party welfare certification for these small producers so we can trust that THEY treat their cows right, as there are certainly other reasons to put off medication aside from organic regulations (antibiotics can be expensive!).

  3. My family runs an organic farm, Granted we only have 12 dairy cows so its kind of hard to compare. But they are very healthy animals. For one thing cows are not meant to be fed grain. Conventional farmers feed it because it improves production. Unfortunately it doesn't improve it enough to offset the feed cost. Grass fed cows will be healthier. Lots of conventional dairy farms have cows that never see the light of day. Anytime you pen animals up in an enclosed space and never let them out your inviting a whole host of problems. Our family has been eating organic meat, milk, vegetables for over 20 years and it hasn't killed anyone yet.