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Consumer Advocates Challenge 'Misuse' of 'Organic' Label

­ In the latest skirmish over the meaning of the label "organic" as it is applied to food, small farmers and natural-food advocates are asking the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to impose a minimum pasture time for cows in organic dairies.

The USDA is holding a public comment period on its regulation addressing cows' access to pasture and grazing until June 12. Currently, the regulation requires farms labeling milk as "organic" to offer cows access to pasture, but it says little else. Organics-consumer advocates say the vague wording has allowed large organic dairy companies such as Horizon and Aurora to build huge farms that house thousands of cows and feedlots without guaranteeing their cows sufficient pasture time.

The controversy over milk standards highlights a rift in the industry over whether the term "organic" has a meaning beyond the absence of chemicals and antibiotics during production.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory committee to the National Organic Program, recommends cows spend at least 120 days per year grazing, and that 30 percent of their food should come from pastures. Critics of the current rules are calling on the USDA to establish at least a minimum number of grazing days for cows.

Spokespeople for Horizon and Aurora defended their farming practices.

"Cows have several months a year on the pasture," said Clark Driftmier, head of environmental stewardship at Aurora. "They aren't locked in a barn," he told The NewStandard.

The controversy over milk standards highlights a rift in the industry over whether the term "organic" has a meaning beyond the absence of chemicals and antibiotics during production.

Horizon spokeswoman Sara Unrue said cows spend "at least" 120 days out on pasture and eat a "balanced" range of grass and grain.

Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, which has become a watchdog over the organic-food industry, said companies like Horizon violate the basic principles of organic production by confining thousands of cows in large barns for part of the year. As an advocate who has visited dairy farms over the past quarter century, most of them non-organic, Kastel said some of the large-scale organic dairies are "virtually identical in their appearance" to nonorganic farms.

"They're giant farms with thousands of cows," Kastel noted. "[The cows] are not out munching grass," he said, arguing that though the dairies give cows grazing time, they often feed them before sending them out to pasture so the cows will "just lay out and chew their cud."

Dairy products account for 25 percent of the organic-food market, according to Food Navigator USA, a food-industry news website. While organics make up only 2 to 3 percent of the food industry as a whole, they constitute one of its fastest-growing areas. In fact, according to Food Navigator, the demand for organic products, particularly dairy, far outstrips the supply.

Proposals to weaken organics-industry standards are not restricted to dairy farming. In a previous public comment period that ended May 12, organic advocates protested USDA rule proposals written in response to a congressional amendment that allows many synthetic products to be used in processed foods that carry the organic seal.

Kastel countered that international trade of food is an industrial practice that goes against the core organic principle of producing and eating locally homegrown food.

The amendment reinforces a long-time practice that started when the organics industry first developed processed foods, which include artificial substances such as leavening or thickening agents. The NOSB began to compile a list of substances that were determined to be safe for human consumption and necessary for production. The Board codified controversial ingredients like sodium acid pyrophosphate, which is used as a leavening agent, into a National List of permitted ingredients.

In October 2003, Maine blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey sued the secretary of agriculture on a variety of counts, including over the inclusion of synthetic ingredients on the National List. While many of Harvey's claims were thrown out, last January, an appeals court ruled that the USDA violated the 1990 Organic Food Production Act by including such ingredients in regulations for organic processed foods.

After the court ruling, the Organic Trade Association, a group that represents a wide variety of companies, worked with politicians to change the law, according to spokeswoman Katherine DiMatteo. "OFPA didn't clearly allow for synthetics to be allowed, and the court agreed with that," she said, adding that private sector and international standards did permit many such substances.

"It's not what it's made of, but rather, what is its long- and short-term negative impacts, what is its necessity for use, and if there's an all-natural substitute," DiMatteo said, offering the reasons such substances are now allowed in production of processed foods recognized as "organic."

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, which has been active in strengthening USDA organic standards, said the amendment negated the lawsuit's victory for advocates and consumers who want to keep artificial ingredients out of organic products. "The law basically codified what the USDA had been doing all along," he said.

Feldman said the amendment was representative of the diminishing value of the organic label over the years. "These are the very materials people are seeking to avoid when they purchase organic food," he told TNS.

During a previous comment period ending May 12, organic consumer advocates also called on the USDA to clarify its regulations on transitioning to organic livestock. They argued that companies have made it a norm to buy cows raised on non-organic feed and then convert them over a year, rather than make the extra investment to raise cows organically from birth. The USDA proposed a rule regarding conversion of entire dairy herds but does not specify buying what Beyond Pesticides calls individual "replacement animals" and later converting their diets to organic feed.

Many advocates argue that such practices represent watered-down national standards that allow companies to just meet USDA regulations to sell their products as organic, even if they miss the principles of organic production.

"Giant corporations have more power at the USDA than [all the] power farmers and consumers can buy, so we have to put the pressure on them to act ethically," Kastel said.

But DiMatteo said on behalf of the trade association that national regulations are necessary to level the playing field of farmers between states.

"I believe that the standards and regulations that are embodied in the national program are high standards and certainly reflect the best of all the standards that had been in place on a statewide basis," she said. "It allows for farmers and businesses to compete with each other and to have the same cost."

DiMatteo added that USDA regulations make international trade easier.

But Kastel countered that international trade of food is an industrial practice that goes against the core organic principle of producing and eating locally homegrown food. General Mills regularly imports organic fruits and vegetables, he said, "but we can produce them perfectly well here... They're profiting from the good name [of organic]," he said.

"Once the standards were put in place, they're rather fixed," Binghamton, NY organic dairy farmer John Bunting said. Having to go through the government can pose a challenge for farmers looking to make changes in their farming practices.

Kastel said standards were necessary at first so that consumers could trust that the organic milk they bought came from farms that do not inject antibiotics into cows, or that the fruits they bought came from farms that do not use artificial pesticides.

But with a larger, more sophisticated organic movement, Kastel said retailers like Whole Foods or Wild Oats can collaborate with small-scale farmers to set regulations with no government involvement.

"Back in 1990, people could sell organic food without it being certified by a third party, and we needed the government to set [standards]," he said. "Today the government is more trouble than it's worth."

To combat the slide in USDA standards, organic advocates across the board said the solution is to buy regionally.

"Trucking organic products halfway around the world doesn't make a lot of sense," said Bunting, who is preparing his farm to produce dairy goods to be sold to local customers.

Kastel, whose organization recently released a report card on the ethics of various organic dairy companies, said, "consumers should support dairy brands with standards higher than those set by the USDA."

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