Sweeping new rules for organic dairies

February 27, 2012

Food, Health, Organic

Mega dairies do not much resemble the farms that inspired the now $24.6 billion organic industry.

The FDA made critics happy with a new ruling, which is what some are calling the most sweeping rewrite of federal organic standards since their inception in 2002. The ruling, called Access to Pasture, closes several loopholes that big corporate dairies have used to sell organic milk to big outlets like Walmart and Costco. These mega dairies do not much resemble the farms that inspired the now $24.6 billion organic industry. The image of cows grazing on sun-kissed fields of grass was often just that — a marketing image divorced from reality.

Since 2000, all organic dairy farms must use organic feed, without antibiotics or hormones. But cows did not have to get out in the light of day to graze. This new regulation requires that dairy cows graze outside during the grazing season, for a minimum of 120 days.

This is a huge blow to certain mega dairies that for years have taken advantage of the Access to Pasture loophole. This famously ambiguous phrase was often interpreted along the lines of a barn door opening to a muddy side yard. Organic proponents are cheering. “We’ve been trying to get the pasture rule clarified and educate consumers about the organic frauds going on,” said Honor Schauland of the Organic Consumers Association. “This is a big victory for us. There’s no longer this gray area of what is the requirement. The next step is enforcement.”

The majority of organic dairy brands in the United States are produced by small farming operations, but the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute estimates that corporate operations like Horizon and Aurora hold a 30 to 40 percent market share of the organic milk industry in the United States. “Cheap organic milk flowing from the illegitimate factory farms has created a surplus that is crushing ethical family farm producers,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at the Cornucopia Institute.

The ruling also leaves wide open a huge question on feeding restrictions — or lack thereof — for organic beef cattle. A 60-day comment period is open until April 19. The USDA took public comment from consumers about “grain finishing” or fattening up organic beef cattle for four months in factory farm-style feedlots.

Access to Pasture tightens up several other cracks in the definition of organic. It expands and strengthens the language prohibiting antibiotics in organic feed, requires that any edible bedding (like straw or corn cobs) be certified organic and mandates that a pasture be managed as a crop — as in, to produce abundant forage.

Studies show that cattle confined and fed grain in feedlots are prone to E. coli 0157H contamination, whereas healthy organic cattle grazing on grass are typically free of this dangerous pathogen. The meat from grass-fed beef is also healthier and more nutritious than beef from animals that have been fed an unnatural diet of corn, soy and grain. Such animals produce meat that is more acidic, with lower levels of CLA (promotes weight loss) and omega-3 fatty acids.

The Cornucopia Institute has a “dairy scorecard” that compares organic brands of milk. Private label brands of milk from Albertson’s, Costco, Kroger, Safeway and Trader Joe’s all scored in the lowest category, meaning “questionable commitment to organics.”


Sources: Organic Consumers Association and www.cornucopia.org/dairysurvey/index.html.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 29, Number 2, Apr/May 2010.

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