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Organic Consumers Association

Alert Update: USDA Dep. Sec. Responds to OCA Activists

In the July 9th edition of Organic Bytes, we published the following alert:

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who helped craft the organic law and regulations as an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and the head of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service under President Clinton, has been a strong supporter of organic. One of her first acts in office was to announce $50 million for a new initiative to meet the Obama Administration's promise to encourage more organic agriculture production.

Dep. Sec. Merrigan should be well versed in the organic industry's worst controversies. In a speech at the All Things Organic trade show in Chicago on June 17, 2009, Deputy Secretary Merrigan said that she was going to get "tough on crime" and go after fraud in the organic marketplace. But, when asked whether she was going to do something to help family-scale dairy farmers who are struggling to compete with factory farms masquerading as organic, Deputy Secretary Merrigan tried to dodge the organic dairy controversy by saying, "I'm not sure what a factory farm is or what a family farm is."

As Organic Consumers Association network members know, the current organic dairy crisis was precipitated by widespread fraud in the organic dairy industry. The USDA has delayed enforcement for over five years of the law requiring mandatory pasture access for organic cows, while allowing giant intensive confinement dairy feedlots with thousands of cows to supply nutritionally inferior "organic" milk to Aurora and Dean Foods/Horizon, who in turn supply Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Target with the cheapest "organic" milk in the country. Justice delayed is justice denied. While we wait for the USDA to enforce the law, the 90% of small and medium-sized organic dairy farmers (and even some large ones), who play by the rules and put their cows out to pasture every day during the growing season, are going out of business because they can't compete with the big confinement dairies of Aurora and Horizon, where production costs are 30% lower than grass-fed, pasture-based organic dairies.

Equally disappointing was Deputy Secretary Merrigan's negative response to a question on whether she would start going after fraud in the personal care products market where many brands market themselves as organic without being certified.

Please tell Deputy Secretary Merrigan that, as an organic consumer, you know the difference between family farms and factory farms and that you expect President Obama's USDA to stop labeling fraud in the organic dairy and personal care sectors and to maintain consumer trust in the USDA Organic label.

We offered our supporters this sample letter:

Factory Farms and Family Farms in Organic

As USDA Deputy Secretary, I understand that you have to represent all farming interests and you cannot take sides in favor of sustainable, as opposed to industrial, agriculture, even though you know as I do that organic agriculture is far superior to chemical and GMO farming. I have also heard that, when you were a professor, you discouraged your students from using loaded terms like "factory farm."

But, can you not agree that factory farming has no place in organic?

When you told a farmer from the Organic Valley cooperative that you did not know the difference between a factory farm and a family farm, you were clearly sidestepping one of the most important controversies in the organic community.

The Bush Administration USDA delayed enforcement -- for over five years -- of the law requiring mandatory pasture access for organic cows, allowing giant intensive confinement dairy feedlots with thousands of cows to supply nutritionally inferior "organic" milk to Aurora and Dean Foods/Horizon, who in turn supply Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Target with the cheapest "organic" milk in the country. Justice delayed is justice denied. While we wait for the Obama USDA to enforce the law, small and medium-sized organic dairy farmers (and even some large ones), who play by the rules and put their cows out to pasture everyday during the growing season, are going out of business because they can't compete with the big confinement dairies of Aurora and Horizon, where production costs are 30% lower than grass-fed, pasture-based organic dairies.

I had hoped that the Obama Administration's USDA would clear up the organic dairy controversy and maintain consumer confidence in organic by enforcing the pasture law. I also thought that the new USDA would start regulating the personal care marketplace by cracking down on brands that market products with front panel label claims of being “organic,” (or trademarking the word organic or organics as part of their brand name) without being certified to USDA agricultural standards as "USDA Organic."

When you were appointed USDA Deputy Secretary, my hope for a change at the USDA grew stronger. You have said you will get "tough on crime" and go after organic fraud. Please take on organic dairy and personal care and put an end to label fraud.

This is her response:

From: "Wilson, Demaris" Demaris.Wilson[at]ams.usda.gov
To: albaden[at]yahoo.com
Cc: "Wood, Jackie" Jackie.Wood[at]ams.usda.gov; "Henderson-Samuels, Earlene" Earlene.Henderson-Samuels[at]ams.usda.gov
Sent: Monday, July 20, 2009 2:38:56 PM
Subject: NOP--5928589

Dear Ms. Baden-Mayer:

Thank you for your email to Deputy Secretary Merrigan. I have been asked to respond on her behalf. All operations certified to the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations must meet the same standards, regardless of size. NOP and its certifying agents are doing their best to enforce the current regulations as they apply to access to pasture for ruminants. The NOP hopes to have a final rule to amend the regulations published by the end of this year.

The USDA regulates organic personal care products only if they are made up of agricultural ingredients. We have no standards for personal care products and have no plans to develop standards at this time.

Thank you again for your email.

Sincerely,

Deputy Administrator
Transportation and Marketing Programs
Agricultural Marketing Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture

OCA Responds:

Dep. Sec. Merrigan's statement is confusing and disappointing. Organic personal care products that are made up of agricultural ingredients are the ones that are most likely to be genuine USDA-certified products. It's the personal care products that are made from synthetic, petroleum-based ingredients that are falsely advertised as "organic" that we need her to regulate.

Furthermore, OCA doesn't want the USDA to create standards for organic personal care products. We just want them to enforce the current agricultural standards in personal care, just like they do when conventional foods are mislabeled as organic.

The Organic Consumers Association expects a long fight for USDA enforcement of organic standards in personal care. The first step is getting the NOSB to adopt the committee recommendation for "Solving the Problem of Mislabeled Organic Personal Care Products." The deadline for sending comments to the NOSB in advance of their November 3-5 meeting is October 19, 2009. Please take action today.

If the USDA delays enforcement of "organic" personal care, the OCA will be forced to back up its grassroots lobbying with market pressure in the form of a buycott and boycott.

If you have followed OCA's campaign against "organic" intensive confinement feedlot dairies where the cows have little or no access to edible pasture, you know that the USDA is typically reluctant to implement NOSB recommendations when it means cracking down on the "Big Organic" companies that dominate the market. The NOSB first recommended to the USDA that all organic dairy cows have "ongoing access to pasture" in 2001, and the USDA-NOP has yet to publish a final regulation banning confinement feedlots.

In the face of USDA inaction, the Organic Consumers Association has been forced to launch a boycott of brands sourcing their milk from so-called "organic" feedlots, namely Horizon and Aurora (supplier for store brands at Costco, Safeway, Giant, and other retailers). Unfortunately, for the 90% of organic dairies that play by the rules, USDA non-enforcement has created a case of "justice delayed is justice denied." It's just too hard for dairies whose healthier cows graze on pasture to compete with the cheap milk coming from industrial-scale feedlots. As the economy worsens,  organic dairy brands like Organic Valley are increasingly under pressure. OCA has recently received complaints from shoppers who couldn't find Organic Valley at Giant, Harris Teeter, The Fresh Market or Trader Joe's. (What to do? Keep asking for Organic Valley!) With the market flooded with cheaper feedlot milk, pasture-based, truly organic dairies have no choice but to trim supplies, cutting or reducing contracts with their organic family farmers. In Maine, an organic dairy farmer who lost his contract with HP Hood committed suicide.

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