So, what happens if an organic chicken gets sick?

My wife used to work on a farm, and she brought up a really good question recently. With all the organic chicken and beef, the big selling point is that they never use any antibiotics ever. So, what if an animal gets sick? Not sick enough that they have to kill it, but just sick enough that a vet would give it antibiotics. Once that happens, it’s tainted as far as the Whole Foods crowd is concerned, right? What do they do?

From an AgriBusiness Week article:

AFAIK, there’s no rule that says organic farmers can’t sell to non-organic markets, so I presume that if they have a significant amount of antibiotic-treated chicken, that’s what they do with it.

There may not be any such territory in the case of chickens. A sick bird is a threat to the rest of the flock and is killed expeditiously, IME.

A vet call certainly costs a lot more than one bird.

No experience here and I could be completely wrong about this but organic labeling is perfectly fine with the use of antibiotics to treat specific, known diseases that are confirmed to actually be present in a specific animal. I always thought the problem stemmed from the routine use of antibiotics in order to potentially prevent future issues. By giving the entire flock antibiotics with their feed, they grow up faster, stronger and diseases never have a chance to gain a foothold say some.

As a practical reality, I suspect that if the organic chicken farmer notices that one specimen has beakrot then that animal is simply culled and discarded. It’s the economies of scale and agricultural production that are preventing treatment with antibiotics - not “Organic” labeling.

chicken soup

It’s pretty common in agriculture to down-grade products so that they can be sold in some fashion. If you can’t be organic, sell to an ordinary processor. Even among ordinary processors, you have different grades of meat, eggs, etc. If you can’t sell the whole bird, cut it up for parts. If it isn’t fit for human consumption, process for animal feed. At some point you get all the way down to “mechanically separated” and “de-fatted fat” for things like chicken nuggets.

They still haven’t found a good use for the feathers, though…

A sick bird?

That’s ill eagle.

Here’s one: Feathers are big in new age healing. Here’s another. And what about stuffing in pillows?

I always heard that there was a use for everything on the farm; they use “every part of the pig except the squeal.”

Yes, that’s my understanding, as well. What the organic farmer does with the sick chicken today is probably whatever all farmers did with sick chickens a hundred years ago.

Biodiesel or fertilizer.

Over at the JREF Forum, there’s a regular who’s a vet in the UK, and has strong opinions about organic farming methods. From this posting:

Thank you all for you answers. I think CurtC is closest to what I was wondering. Are the organic farmers so afraid of losing “organic” status that if an animal is sick they won’t even get it medicine? It looks like, at least in some cases, they don’t.

I assume Kimstu and Dracoi are on the right track with the farmers changing the labels to non-organic. However everyone we’ve talked to seems to also have the same ‘I think it’s…’ and ‘I’d assume they…’ answers. No one seems to know for certain what happens if a cow on an organic farm gets sick.

I didn’t mean for everyone to get so hung up on chickens specifically. I guess I probably could have been more clear in my original question, that I was more wondering about larger animals like cows and as in Curt’s example, sheep, but no one uses the phrase “organic cows”.

Organic farmers most assuredly do use vaccines, so I think he’s exaggerating that “profoundly anti-vaccination” ethos. There have been organic advocates who questioned the need for certain vaccines in certain contexts, but IME the key vaccines are virtually always used. (For organic chickens, their standard vaccinations as chicks are likely to constitute all the medical attention they will ever receive.)

Prophylactic antibiotics are an entirely different thing. Animals that need lifelong antibiotics simply to avoid showing signs of illness resulting from their everyday conditions cannot reasonably be thought of as healthy animals.

That makes it sound like organic farmers are less sensitive than conventional ones to animal suffering, which is, if anything, the opposite of the truth.

The value of the finished products is certainly a concern–this is a business–so if there is an effective, certification-compliant organic treatment, that will be used first. But if it’s not established as effective, nobody’s going to risk the health, and value, of more animals by letting one go untreated out of devotion to an abstract anti-“chemical” ethos. Either the animal will be swiftly killed to protect the rest of the stock, or it will be treated organically, or it will be treated inorganically and its products taken out of the certified operation. In any case, the treatment from the animal’s point of view will be at least as good under the organic regime as under the conventional.

The relevant terms would be “organic beef” and “organic milk.”

However, you’ll also see labels saying things like “all-natural grass-fed beef,” without an actual organic certification. There are a number of producers who aren’t certified, but are dedicated to minimizing the use of problematic/restricted additives.

He might claim to be a vet, but he’s shockingly ignorant of what organic farming is. Since this is GQ, it might be useful to link to the US Government List of approved chemicals permissible in organic livestock production and the similar EU regulations.

Of course a sick animal can be treated with antibiotics, What’s not allowed is to hand pills out like candy.

Not to say that there aren’t any woo woo organic farmers out there, but there are undoubtedly more nut job inorganic farmers as well.

Feathers are 80% protein and feather meal is sold as a commodity used in the production of animal feed.

Right. From the article I linked above:

Maybe the self-described UK vet on the Randi Foundation messageboard quoted by CurtC, if his accounts of his own experience are accurate, is encountering a different set of organic certification regulations that prohibit vaccine use. Or maybe he’s just encountering a subset of organic farmers who are radical Luddites opposed to every modern invention.

It is treated by a vet using approved medication. In the EU loses its organic status for 28 days after treatment ends (56 days in the US). It also can’t produce organic milk for a week or two.

I do know an organic beef farmer who lets her cows get sick. She says that letting natural selection take care of it works better than antibiotics, at least for her bottom line. She claims to have the highest profit margin in her field in this area.

Yikes. Do you mean that she simply doesn’t treat her sick livestock at all? For any type of problem?

I guess not spending any money on vet bills could indeed increase your profit margin, but I’m not sure that’s the sort of livestock owner I’d care to do business with.