Organic apples, pears going antibiotic-free

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PORTLAND — The organic apples you buy in the grocery store will soon be free of a widely used antibiotic.

The National Organic Standards Board last week rejected a petition to allow growers to use the antibiotic oxytetracyline beyond Oct. 21, 2014.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's labeling standards generally prohibit food from being certified organic if antibiotics were used during production. But the threat of fire blight — a pathogen that infects flowers and trees — led to an exception for growers of apples and pears. That exception was revisited in Portland earlier this month the board was urged to maintain the 2014 deadline.

"If organics is going to market itself as a more responsible type of agriculture, then they need to live up to it," said Patty Lovera, the assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based consumer group.Farmers were already granted a two-year extension in 2011, and opponents worried that yet another delay would be sought.

Although people on both sides of the issue want to eliminate the use of antibiotics, supporters of a 2016 deadline said alternatives must first be proven effective. Otherwise, growers might drop their organic certification if faced with the threat of fire blight.

"Just as growing a tree takes time, so does research," said Diane Dempster, organic commodity manager at Charlie's Produce, a large Pacific Northwest wholesaler.Most antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to livestock to help prevent disease and spur growth. Health officials have seen a sharp increase in superbugs that are resistant to treatment with antibiotics in humans, and say it's connected to the heavy use of antibiotics in agriculture.