A long struggle over what kind of milk counts as organic is coming to a head.
The Department of Agriculture has issued draft rules for organic milk that would require that the cows be on pasture at least half the year and get plenty of fresh grass. The proposals are meant to close a loophole that has allowed some huge feedlots to sell their milk as organic, even though their cows rarely grazed on fresh grass.
Advocates for family dairy farms and organic consumers say that's not what shoppers think they're buying when they pay a premium for organic milk.
"Pretty much the entire organic community welcomes the long-overdue closing of loopholes for pasture and feed in the organic dairy regulations," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.
"The controversy has dragged on so long," agreed George Siemon, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and chief executive officer of Organic Valley, the nation's largest farmer-owned organic dairy cooperative.
The public comment period on the draft rules runs through Dec. 23.
The issue started to boil over a few years ago when it emerged that a handful of large dairy farms with thousands of cows, mostly in arid western states, were feeding their cows organic grain but keeping them largely confined to feedlots while selling the milk as organic.
The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute helped lead the charge, mainly against two companies: Aurora Organic Dairy, which produces private-label organic milk for national and local retailers including Wal-Mart, Costco and Safeway; and Horizon Organic, the largest national organic dairy brand. The Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association called for boycotts and spread the word to its hundreds of thousands of supporters via the Internet. Consumers filed class-action lawsuits.
"We have literally millions of consumers who give a damn and are highly passionate and willing to stand up and protect the integrity of their food supply," said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at Cornucopia.
Organic dairy products are a $2.7 billion industry, about 4 percent of all dairy products sold in 2006, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic dairy is growing faster than the organic sector as a whole, and is an important entry point for consumers who are new to organics, said Holly Givens, a spokeswoman for the association.
Kastel's watchdog group says the number of big industrial organic dairies has grown from just two in 2000 to 14 or 15 today, and they are producing about 40 percent of the organic milk supply. That's depressing prices and forcing legitimate family farms out of business, he said.
In the notice published in the Federal Register late last month, the USDA said consumers and others had made clear their feelings that organic cows should get their nutrition from grazing. In an earlier public comment round, only 28 of more than 80,500 comments were against tightening the rules. The USDA also pointed to surveys conducted by Whole Foods Market, Consumers Union and the Natural Marketing Institute that found strong backing for requiring grazing for organic cows.
Organic advocates are happy that the draft rules would require that organic cows be on pasture for at least 120 days out of the year, and that the animals get at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from grazing during the growing season.
But they've got some concerns.
"It's too prescriptive," Siemon said. It will be a burden for small and midsize dairy farms like Organic Valley's to comply with all the detailed requirements, he said. Just one example, he said, is a requirement specifying that drinking water equipment must be cleaned weekly. And he said there needs to be some flexibility for weather, such as harsh winters, droughts and floods.
Cummins objected to a provision that would let organic dairies bring in conventionally raised heifers and sell their milk as organic. His group says only cows raised organically from birth should be added to organic herds.
Kastel said some provisions in the draft have nothing to do with organic milk and could delay changes even longer. He said issues such as beekeeping and fish farms should be considered separately.
Aurora Organic Dairy is reviewing the draft rules and will submit comments to the USDA by the Dec. 23 deadline, spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele said. The Boulder, Colo.-based company had said previously that it considered the 120-day standard unscientific. Tuitele said that's less of a concern to Aurora now, but said the proposals don't adequately provide for inclement weather. She also said the final rules will need to take geographic differences into consideration.
Aurora has five dairy farms in Colorado and Texas with a total of 4,000 acres of pasture and about 16,000 cows, of which about 12,000 are being milked, she said. She said Aurora has been unfairly attacked by people who simply don't like large-scale producers, but that its model means lower prices for consumers.
"At Aurora Dairy, regardless of what the final outcome is, we fully expect to be in compliance," Tuitele said.
Horizon Organic has long supported both the 120-day and 30 percent requirements and considers the proposed rules a step in the right direction, said Sara Loveday, a spokeswoman for Broomfield, Colo.-based Horizon, a unit of Fort Worth, Texas, based-Dean Foods Co., the country's largest dairy processor and distributor.
Loveday said Horizon has also been unfairly criticized. She said Horizon gets 85 percent of its milk from 475 family farms. The rest comes from two company-owned farms. She said that's because Horizon needs a mix of small and large suppliers to meet the demand.
In Siemon's view, the dispute has gone on so long that the big producers are coming around on the pasture issue.
"This controversy has really hammered home that organics has to be pasture-based, and that's a good thing," he said.
On the Net:
Federal Register notice on proposed pasture rule:
The Cornucopia Institute: http://www.cornucopia.org
Organic Consumers Association: http://www.organicconsumers.org
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press.
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