A decision by the National Organic Standards Board not to extend use of a key antibiotic to control fire blight in organic fruit production represents a loss for both producers and consumers, says Harold Austin, an NOSB board member.

The antibiotic oxytetracyline will no longer be approved for use on organic apples or pears after October 21, 2014. Fire blight is a highly contagious bacterial disease that kills tree limbs, turning them brown as if scorched by fire. If uncontrolled, the disease can kill trees.

At their meeting in Portland, Oregon, in early April, board members considered a petition from the tree fruit industry to extend its use for another two years. Nine of the 15 board members voted in favor—one short of the two-thirds majority needed.

Harold Austin
Harold Austin

“I was extremely disappointed that the board has failed the organic community,” Austin told the Good Fruit Grower after the meeting. “I felt we had a great opportunity to bring all of the stakeholders—consumers, environmentalists, and growers—together to find a point of commonality we could agree on. I really felt that we let down the organic consumers because, at some point of time, this is going to take organic fruit out of production and off the shelves,” he said.

Austin, who is director of orchard administration for Zirkle Fruit Company, Selah, Washington, said the main concern of consumer advocates, who were well represented at the meeting, seemed to be the potential for the use of antibiotics in tree fruit production to increase resistance to antibiotics in humans.

But David Granatstein, Washington State University sustainable agriculture specialist, presented test results showing that apples from treated trees had no residues at harvest. Trees are usually treated at bloom—before there is fruit—and the material quickly dissipates in the environment.

Growers will be able to use the antibiotic for the next two growing seasons but will need alternatives in 2015. The only other antibiotic available for use in tree fruit production, streptomycin, comes up for review at the NOSB’s meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, this fall, and Austin said there’s no reason to think the outcome will be different.

Granatstein said he thinks oxytetracycline should have been made available until the research on alternatives is complete, the results written up, and some guidelines developed for growers to use. In addition, the new products need to be registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, approved for organic, and made available in sufficient quantities by the manufacturer. Last year, for example, there was only enough Blossom Protect (Aureobasidium pullulans) available to treat 2,000 acres. And then, they need to be tested by the growers when conditions are conducive to fire blight.

“It takes time,” he said. “It’s not going to happen in two years.”

For more background on the NOSB see this earlier Good Fruit Grower article “How the NOSB makes decisions.”

Read the Organic Tree Fruit Association’s position paper on Antibiotic Use on Apples and Pears issued before the meeting.

Look for the full story in the Good Fruit Grower’s May 15 magazine.