USDA Releases New Organic 'Pasture Rule' for Organic Milk Producing Dairy Farms

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 monkey-wrenched 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)."

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 decertified.

"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.

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 praise the tightening pasture rules has garnered.

Kastel added, "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." The added proposals also have the potential to indefinitely delay enforcement activities against organic scofflaws.

"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 them into law," Kastel stated.

Consumers can choose from the 85% of name-brand dairy product marketers that are complying with both the letter and spirit of the organic law by viewing Cornucopia's organic dairy scorecard at http://www.cornucopia.org.

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