After over 10 years of lobbying, family farmers across the country, who produce organic milk, are celebrating the release of strict new USDA regulations that establish distinct benchmarks requiring the grazing and pasturing of dairy cows and other livestock. Many hope that the new rule will put an end to the abuses that have flooded the organic market with suspect milk from a handful of mega-dairies generally confining thousands of animals in feed lots and barns.
"We are delighted by the new rules," said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. "The organic community has been calling for strong regulations and its enforcement for much of the past decade. Cheap organic milk flowing from the illegitimate factory farms has created a surplus that is crushing ethical family farm producers."
The issue has been a lightning rod for controversy in the organic community.
At least five times during the last decade, the National Organic Standards Board - a key USDA advisory panel made-up of industry stakeholders - passed guidance or recommended regulatory changes clarifying the requirement that dairy cows and other ruminants must be allowed to exhibit their native behavior and consume a meaningful amount of their feed from grazing on pastures.
New rulemaking had been delayed by the Bush administration, using a myriad of tactics, some of which are being scrutinized in an ongoing investigation by the USDA's office of Inspector General.
The Cornucopia Institute, on behalf of its family farmer members, also filed numerous formal legal complaints with the USDA's National Organic Program calling for investigations into alleged violations of organic livestock management practices occurring on many of the 20 largest factory farm facilities.
The biggest scandal in the history of the organic industry centered around one such USDA investigation with the regulators finding "willful" violations of 14 organic regulations on factory farms operated by Aurora Dairy, a $100+ million company based in Colorado (Aurora produces private-label, store brand milk for Wal-Mart, Costco and large grocery chains).
"The public controversies concerning Aurora, and alleged improprieties by the largest milk processor in the country, Dean Foods (Horizon Organic), put increasing pressure on the USDA to rein-in the scofflaws in this industry," Kastel added.
"I am confident that the new rule, along with a commitment to rigorous enforcement by certifiers, will put an end to these abuses and restore fairness to the organic dairy sector," said Kevin Engelbert, a dairy farmer from Nichols, NY who milks 100 cows. "Consumers will be able to purchase organic dairy products with confidence, knowing that regardless of the label, the animals who produced the milk were on pasture, as nature intended," Engelbert added.
The USDA has announced that they will begin this month hosting a series of workshops around the country with the nation's 50+ organic certification agencies and other industry stakeholders. The sessions are intended to clearly define the meaning and intent of the new rule so that certifiers, who conduct annual farm inspections and review organic system management plans, will understand what the regulations require from farmers and only approve management practices that strictly conform to it.
Specifically, the new rules require that dairy cows and other ruminants be out on pasture for the entire growing season, but for not less than 120 days. It also requires that the animals receive at least 30% of their feed, or dry matter intake (DMI), from pasturing. In addition, organic livestock will be required to have access to the outdoors year-round with the exception of temporary confinement due to mitigating and documentable environmental or health considerations.
"These minimum benchmarks will assure consumers that industrial-scale dairies don't just create the 'illusion' of grazing and continue producing illegitimate organic milk," said Kastel. He continued by emphasizing to consumers that, "Based on Cornucopia's research 90% of all namebrand dairy products are produced with high-integrity- the handful of factory farms are bad aberrations and will now be dealt with."
The 120-day/30% DMI benchmarks were negotiated reference points agreed-upon by organic community stakeholders and arrived at after a series of meetings and discussions, nationwide, over much of the last half dozen years. The rules were also a carefully crafted consensus aimed at ensuring that legitimate organic dairy operations could truly provide meaningful pasture for their herds across the wide range of climatic zones in the U.S. It is estimated that the rule will impact upwards of 2000 organic dairy farmers.
Cornucopia, a farm policy research group, along with agricultural producers and other organizations, are carefully scrutinizing other impacts on the most sweeping rewrite of the federal organic standards since their inception in 2002. In addition to dairy cattle, the standards will assure humane animal husbandry practices in eggs, poultry, beef and pork production. The USDA will also be accepting public comments for 60 days on one exclusion from the pasture minimum, that for "finish feeding" on grain for ruminants, including beef cattle - an issue that proved controversial and elicited a wealth of public comments when the original draft rule was published.
"I, along with many other family farmers, watch with intense frustration as the seemingly unprincipled mega dairies continually bend the rules and engage in unfair competition with me," said Rebecca Goodman, a certified organic dairy producer who milks 40 cows in Wonewoc, WI. "I am thankful that the USDA is now standing with us to preserve the integrity of the organic food label."
"When Secretary Vilsack met with organic dairy farmers in Wisconsin this past summer he told us that he would 'level the playing field' for small and medium producers," Goodman added. "These new regulations appear to be the first of what I hope will be many steps by the Secretary following through on this important commitment."
"I am so pleased to know that the process of rule change that will ensure that organic livestock will consume a significant amount of pasture during the grazing season is coming to a successful conclusion", said Kathie Arnold, an organic dairy producer in Truxton, NY who has a 130 cow herd in partnership with her husband and his brother. Arnold, a respected leader in the organic dairy community, has been intimately involved in the stakeholder dialogue for the past six years and was the point person for collating comments from farmers around the country that were submitted to the USDA as the consensus agreement - now largely adopted in the USDA regulations.
"For those of us whose livelihoods depend on the integrity of the organic label, we view this as excellent news," said Blake Alexandre, a large-scale, grass-based dairy producer from Humboldt County California. "We thank the leadership at the USDA for their diligent work and will be carefully monitoring how this is implemented. But every indication appears to meet our expectations."
The new organic livestock standards will go into effect 120 days after publication in the Federal Register [which is expected later today (2-12-10)], or approximately June 16, 2010.
Cornucopia Institute research indicates that 30-40% of the nation's organic milk supply is coming from a handful of giant CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) largely found in arid areas of the western U.S. When the USDA established the federal organic standards in 2002, only two such operations were in existence and neither was providing any pasture to the thousands of animals in their milk herd.
Of the two original CAFOs, both associated with Dean Foods' Horizon brand, one, in Pixley, California, a 10,000-head split operation (conventional and organic cows) lost its organic certification in 2006. The other, a corporate-owned dairy in Paul, Idaho was never investigated during the Bush administration by the USDA. The Cornucopia Institute has formally appealed to Secretary Vilsack to adjudicate the legal complaints against Dean Foods and to reopen the Aurora investigation (under the previous administration Aurora was allowed to stay in business after career civil servants recommended its decertification having found multiple and "willful" violations of federal law).
Companies like Aurora and Dean Foods/Horizon built commanding organic industry market shares, now well exceeding 60-70% of the market, by quickly getting suspect milk on the store shelves through quickly adding or developing financial ties to new factory farm facilities (it should be noted that current industry market shares are not tracked by government data and difficult to precisely pinpoint).
See the USDA regulatory language:
Over 90% of all namebrand organic dairy products are produced with high integrity. A brand scorecard, intended to empower consumers and wholesale buyers, can be viewed at:
New USDA Rules Establish Strong Organic Standards for Pasture and Livestock
Family Farmers Call Rule a Victory for Integrity of Organic Food and Agriculture
Swift and Judicious Enforcement of Abuses Now Expected by Obama Administration
Cornucopia Institute, Feb 12, 2010
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