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Organic Consumers Association

USDA Releases New Organic 'Pasture Rule' - Running Out the Clock for Family Farmers?

CORNUCOPIA, WI -- After eight years of intense scrutiny and criticism the USDA has published a proposed amendment to the federal organic regulations intended to address abuses by "factory farms," milking thousands of cows each and masquerading as organic.

The heated controversy pitted the country's 1700-1800 families who produce organic milk, and their loyal customers, against some of the largest dairy processors in the United States, including Dean Foods which markets milk under their Horizon label.

"We are pleased that the USDA has finally addressed the concerns of the organic dairy community, " said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, "but it appears that the department has once again monkeywrenched this process by incorporating a number of red herrings ­ major policy proposals that have never been reviewed by the industry, or, as Congress mandated, by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)."

It is feared that these added proposals have the potential to crash the other needed changes addressed by this rule and indefinitely delay enforcement.

The USDA's proposed rule, published today in the Federal Register, clarifies requirements for organic livestock producers, principally dairy farmers, requiring their animals to graze on pasture and consume a significant percentage of their feed intake during the growing season.

The existing organic standards, since their inception, have required grazing practices for organic ruminants but have been flouted by a number of big industrial concerns.

Dean Foods/Horizon and the Aurora Dairy ­ the nation's largest producer of organic, private-label milk, and milking approximately 20,000 cows in five different facilities in Colorado and Texas - have been flashpoints in this controversy.  Formal legal complaints filed by Cornucopia were investigated by the USDA, and Aurora was found to have "willfully" violated 14 tenets of the organic law, including confining their cattle to feed lots instead of grazing and illegally bringing conventional cattle into their organic operations.  A 10,000-cow dairy, Dean/Horizon's largest supplier, was also decertified.

Although the career civil servants at the USDA recommended that Aurora be decertified, permanently banned from organic commerce, Bush administration officials at the USDA overruled staff downgrading the "death sentence" to a one-year probation.

"The Aurora scandal, the largest in the history of the organic industry, clearly indicates that if the USDA chooses to pursue violators, the current regulations are perfectly enforceable," added Kastel.

The new proposed regulations are intended to make the current rules more understandable for all dairy producers and organic certification agents.

However, The Cornucopia Institute and other groups representing organic farmers and consumers have objected to the USDA's adding new policy provisions that could cause a hailstorm of criticism as a juxtaposition to the praise the tightening pasture rules have garnered.

"While I appreciate the fact that the USDA has issued proposed rules to clarify pasture requirements, based on NOSB recommendations, I am very concerned about the proposed language on dairy replacement animals," said Jim Riddle, a past chair and member of the National Organic Standards Board.

Added Riddle:  "The proposed change, contrary to language recommended by the NOSB, would institutionalize the current two-track system, which allows certain operations to continually bring in conventional heifers, while other operations are required to use only replacement heifers that have been raised organically from the last third of gestation. There should be one standard for all organic dairy farms, once they have converted to organic production."

And Kastel explained that "our concern is that vital rulemaking, that many have worked so hard on for about eight years, will be seriously delayed by the new potential controversy the USDA will stir up over added provisions never vetted by the NOSB or the industry at large."

In addition to addressing the pasture and dairy animal replacement issue the USDA rule proposes expanding the definition of livestock to include bees and aquatic animals. 

"We ask that the USDA separate the organic dairy rulemaking, agreed-upon by the majority of the industry, from the other new provisions they have put forward and immediately adopt it into law," Kastel stated.  "Although many of the USDA's new proposals are meritorious, by packaging these new initiatives together with the long debated dairy provisions it may guarantee years of additional delays to the widespread calls to ramp-up enforcement on the bad actors."

The Cornucopia Institute stated, "We highly recommend that farmers and consumers carefully scrutinize the proposed rules and ask the USDA to incorporate the well-vetted proposals that crackdown on corporate dairy while tabling other provisions until they have adequate public scrutiny."

The USDA was also the subject of intense criticism in 2004 when they proposed other major policy alterations to the organic law without review by the NOSB, public hearings and the opportunity for written comments from all industry stakeholders.  The media attention and groundswell of criticism at the time caused then USDA Secretary Ann Venneman to withdraw the proposals, apologize, and promise better collaboration with the industry in the future.

"Whether, as some cynics have suggested, the USDA's loading up the past rule with other major policy is an out and out attempt to run the clock out on cracking down on the major corporate scofflaws, or whether this is just an inappropriate   attempt by regulators to ignore the congressionally mandated collaborative process with the industry, is unknown," Kastel lamented.

"The record clearly illustrates that after five policy proposals from the NOSB since 2000, none of which have heretofore been adopted by the USDA, they have taken every possible excuse to delay cracking down on abuse in our industry," Kastel said.

After 20 years of sustainable pricing organic dairy farmers have seen their profit margins so pinched, by unfair competition from the 30,000-40,000 cows on factory farm dairies that are allegedly operating illegally, that some are being forced to liquidate their farms while others are hanging on watching their profitability curdle.

"The USDA has looked the other way when it comes to enforcement and now it appears that they may be running out the clock on this new rulemaking process," Kastel said.

MORE:

New, major policies proposed by the USDA include (never reviewed or recommended by the NOSB):

1. Eliminating the fattening of beef cattle on grain, in feedlots, for the last few months of their lives.  Although many might view this proposal as meritorious it would radically change the industry and could force some operators out of business.  Full analysis and discussion by the industry is vitally necessary.

1. Setting aside part of a farmer's land in a "sacrifice" pasture for when weather conditions make grazing unsuitable.  This might be a provision that some current operators cannot meet and might violate certain state and federal environmental standards.  This may have positive application but its overall impacts have never been fully analyzed.

1. Classifying bees and aquatic species as livestock will likely garner positive and negative response from that industry sector depending on its perceived present and future regulatory impact.

1. The USDA draft rule ignores the NOSB recommendation to eliminate the "continual transition" of conventional cattle, brought onto organic dairy operations.  The industry has universally agreed that all animals brought onto a farm, after its initial transition to organics, must be managed organically from the last third of gestation.  Animals raised for meat already have to meet this higher standard.  Many industry experts feel that the USDA has misinterpreted the law, for years, allowing giant factory farms to "burnout" their cattle, prematurely sending them to slaughter, and replacing them with cheap conventional cattle on an ongoing basis.  This new rulemaking proposes that the department's "misinterpretations" become institutionalized as law.

Since the organic farming community first appealed to the USDA for better clarification and enforcement, almost 9 years ago, the number of these giant operations, with some having as many as 10,000 milking cows, has grown from two to 13-15 industrial-scale dairies.

"This 90 page long document, put forth by the USDA, may so muddy the water that we could be facing years of additional delays until the widely agreed-upon provisions are enacted," said Kastel.

You don't have to take the word of The Cornucopia Institute alone that the department has "Katrina-ed" the organic industry and violated federal law. Audits by the American National standard Institute (ANSI) and the Inspector General's office were both highly critical of the USDA's execution of a congressional mandate to oversee the organic industry.

Much of what we have read initially in this rule draft looks positive.  But we have to be particularly cautious that loopholes do not exist.  The vast majority of the 1700-1800 family farmers producing organic milk in this country are highly ethical.  But certain industry players, including the dairy giant Dean Foods and Aurora Dairy, the nation's largest private-label producer of organic milk (Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Safeway, etc.) have based their business model on exploiting the trust of the organic consumer and violating both the spirit and letter of the organic law (full documentation available).

Consumers can choose from the 85% of namebrand dairy products marketers that are complying with both the letter and spirit of the organic law by viewing the organic dairy scorecard at: www.cornucopia.org.

The USDA's proposed pasture rule can be viewed at:

http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5073426&acct=noprulemaking 
 The Cornucopia Institute is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Through research, advocacy, and economic development, our goal is to empower farmers both politically and through marketplace initiatives.

Contact:  Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042

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