Improving the Organic Label

Prohibiting Antibiotics in Hatcheries

If you look for the “organic” label to ensure you are buying chicken that was never treated with antibiotics, you may be surprised to learn that the organic regulations contain a loophole. Federal organic law and regulations strictly prohibit antibiotics in organic livestock production (sick animals must be treated with the appropriate medication, so antibiotics should be used if necessary, but animals treated with antibiotics cannot be sold as “organic”). But the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently allows routine use of antibiotics for chickens that are still in the egg as well as on the first day of their lives. This exception in the organic standards exists only for poultry.

One of the most common antibiotics administered to day-old chicks in conventional hatcheries is gentamicin, which is classified by the World Health Organization as "critically important" for human medicine (it is the sole therapy or one of few alternatives to treat serious human disease). Its routine use in day-old chicks is disconcerting in any segment of agriculture, but especially when those chicks are raised on organic farms starting on the second day of their lives, and eventually sold as “organic.”

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Consumer Survey

What Consumers Think

According to our 2015 survey, 60% of consumers think that the organic label means antibiotics were never used. An even greater percentage think that the organic label should mean this: 72% responded that antibiotics should never be used, and 79% responded that antibiotics should only be used to treat sick animals.

Taking Action

Our Advocacy Work on Antibiotics in Organics

We wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January 2014 requesting that the agency prohibit administering antibiotics to chicks that will be raised as "organic."  In June 2015, we wrote a detailed letter to the Secretary of Agriculture to request that the agency take action. The Secretary of Agriculture responded in August 2015 that the agency will request a recommendation on this issue from the National Organic Standards Board.

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Know Your Labels

What You Can Do

When buying poultry, look for the "USDA Organic" seal along with a "raised without antibiotics" claim. Producers making a "raised without antibiotics" or similar claim are prohibited from using antibiotics at any stage of life, including day-old chicks.