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New Rules for Organic Dairy

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It took five years of on-and-off sparring, but organic supporters are raising a nice, tall glass of organic milk after the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued revised rules governing the “access to pasture” guidelines contained within the National Organic Program.

Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a small farm advocacy group and one of the most vocal critics of the original regulations, was quoted in our print issue of SN as saying, “Flashing forward to a year from now, when this rule will be fully in place and enforced, we hope to be able to say that 100% of the name brands and private labels all meet the rigorous standards that consumers expect” from the USDA-certified organic label.

whrefreshcow.jpgThere are two reasons everyone is pleased. The first one, of course, is that the rule was changed. Starting in June, the USDA’s revised access to pasture regulation will require farmers to allow their cows to graze at least 120 days per year, and the cows must also get at least 30% of their food from pasture during the local grazing season. The old version simply — and vaguely — required “access to pasture,” with no further specifications as to how much or when.

Critics of the old rule claimed that large-scale dairies were taking advantage of the hazy wording to circumvent the spirit of the regulations but still calling their dairy products certified organic. Groups like the Cornucopia Institute and the Organic Consumers Association were tenacious in petitioning the USDA for investigations of specific big dairy operators and filing lawsuits.

And that is the second reason advocates are celebrating. The USDA began responding to complaints in a timely manner. Many credit the change in administrations — which included the appointment of two well-respected veterans of the organic movement to positions overseeing the NOP within the USDA. The rule change is the latest example of a reinvigorated agency intent on listening to constituents and closing loopholes within the NOP.

“The USDA actually listened, very carefully to the family farming community, and adopted virtually all of their recommendations,” Kastel said in the SN story.

There may be more to come. Of even bigger interest is the pending audit of the NOP by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The report will examine issues of reliability, consistency and accountability of the firms and companies that have been approved by the USDA to certify manufacturers and processors of organic foods. The Commerce assessment will be an even truer test of the government’s intentions regarding the organic program.

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