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Putting USDA loophole on ‘organic’ out to pasture — maybe

I think if you asked the average city person how cows in an organic milk operation are tended, somewhere in the answer the words “pasture” or “hay” or “grass” or “meadow,” if not “free range,” would appear.

None of those words are necessarily accurate under current U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations. A loophole big enough to drive a cattle truck through has existed in USDA rules; it allows giant corporate feedlots to sell their milk as certified organic even though their Holsteins may have rarely sniffed a blade of grass.

The current law says organic dairy cattle must have “access to pasture,” but that phrase  has not been interpreted as grazing in the green fields of America. Milk can be called organic if the herd ate organic feed.

The Agriculture Department, after eight years of pressure from smaller organic milk producers, is finally reacting by proposing a rule change that would require organic livestock to graze at least 120 days per year. No hormones, antibiotics or pesticide-treated grains would be allowed. The idea is that about 30 percent of the cows’ diet would come from grazing.

Consumers, grocers supported change
The notice from the USDA published in the Federal Register said that consumers supported the grazing requirement; several surveys reported by consumer groups and grocers also provided evidence that dairy labeled as organic should be grass-fed. The USDA reported 1,800 dairies with 87,000 organic dairy cows in the United States, more than 93 percent of them in small operations in the Midwest or Northeast.

The proposal has caused some worry among organic producers after the USDA included bees and some aquatic species as “livestock.” And as the USDA attempts to close one loophole, it may be opening another: Replacement cattle in the organic herds can be beef cattle or not-as-organic heifers.

“There is some fear that big industry packed the rule to slow it down,” Ronnie Cummins of Finland, Minn., director of the Organic Consumers Association, told Bloomberg. “It was not done correctly. It makes you really suspicious since it has taken them years and years to close these loopholes.”

A growing part of the market
The organic dairy slice of the market is small — somewhere in the 4 to 6 percent range — but it is growing, and consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for organic milk (at least until the recent economic slowdown). The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, which lobbies for family farms, has created a dairy report and scorecard to help consumers keep track of what they’re buying.

The comment period on the proposed regulation expires Dec. 23.

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