Is Purchasing Organic Meat a Good Choice?

There has been a marked increase in the purchase and consumption of organic beef in Australia over the past few years. People are happy to pay a much higher price for meat which has been certified organic. But what exactly does this mean? And, in particular, what does it mean for the animals being raised and slaughtered on organic farms?

The Australian Certified Organic Standard has a number of criteria which farmers must meet in order to be allowed to market themselves as “certified organic.” Some of these criteria are reasonable. Others seem well-intentioned at first sight but are impractical in practice with ensuing animal welfare implications.

For example, antibiotic use appears to be strongly discouraged. There is no doubt that people are over-medicated and antibiotics in human medicine are probably over-prescribed with knock-on resistance effects. There is a growing school of thought that minimising consumption of antibiotics from meat may reduce antibiotic resistance among the human population. However, dissuading farmers from allowing vets to treat using antibiotics and other veterinary drugs is not good for animal welfare. It just isn’t. It doesn’t matter that it’s specified that “treatments shall not be withheld where animal welfare concerns exist.” If a farmer has to weigh up calling a vet to treat a sick animal against the risk of decertification of his entire stock then animals are going to suffer.

In addition, the logic behind some of these rules seems tenuous at best. According to the Standard, animals who are allowed to be treated with medications will require a quarantine period of three times the legal withholding period for the drug, or for three weeks, whichever is longer.

What? Why? Withholding periods have been carefully calculated to determine when the meat is safe to eat after treatment and a safety margin has already been included in that calculation. Why has someone decided to triple that time? And why three times the legal limit? Why not four or ten?

Treated stock must be quarantined from certified stock. Although it obviously makes sense to separate unwell and contagious animals from the rest of the herd, that’s not actually what’s enforced here. It is not unwell animals that must be quarantined. It is treated animals. It seems as if medicine is what’s being demonised. Have we really gotten to a point where medicine is more intimidating than disease?

Cows are gregarious animals. This means that they like to be in groups and thus tend not to do well in isolation. They have evolved as a prey species and living in a herd environment provides feelings of security and safety. Quarantined animals will be isolated leading to increased anxiety and decreased quality of life.

Organic farming is not inherently bad. There are certain aspects of it that are undoubtedly beneficial. Reducing stocking densities will improve animal welfare. Improving animal husbandry in order to minimise the numbers of animals getting sick is excellent farming practice. However, weighing up the economic benefit of treating sick animals is not.

Organic meat production is great in theory. Then again, so is communism. Both systems are inherently flawed because people are inherently flawed. Theoretically only treating animals that need to be treated and only doing so with drugs that are warranted is perfectly logical. In practice, when such stringent criteria are in place with such serious consequences for non-compliance at some point the question stops being “Does this animal need to be treated by a vet?” and becomes “Is it economically viable and practicable for this animal to be treated by a vet?”

I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the way economics has overtaken animal welfare in what, theoretically, should be a welfare-driven system. Organic and healthier are not synonymous. Sometimes “Certified Organic” is nothing more than excellent marketing.

 

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