WASHINGTON — Resolving a long-standing conflict between food activism groups and a handful of major organic dairies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program has issued new regulations that dictate how much time organic dairy cattle must be allowed to graze in pasture each year.
The original rules set by the USDA's National Organic Program simply stated that organic dairy cows must have “access to pasture.” And, this vague directive allowed some organic dairy operators to maximize milk production by allowing their cows outside to graze only during spans of time when they weren't producing milk.
The issue emerged as a major point of contention in 2005. Organic food activists and independent farmers' groups argued that these practices violated the spirit of the USDA's organic rules and diluted consumer confidence in the USDA Certified Organic seal. Dairies that exploited this “\,” they argued, were able to achieve efficiencies and economies of scale that led to unfair competition with smaller, family-owned dairies and farmer-owned cooperatives.
Organizations such as the Organic Consumers Association and the Cornucopia Institute zeroed in on two companies in particular — Dean Foods and their Horizon Organic brand, and Aurora Organic Dairy, the nation's largest producer of private-label organic milk. Organized boycotts against the brands led some natural food stores to discontinue them.
The fight culminated in a series of consumer lawsuits launched in 2007, alleging fraudulent labeling against Aurora and retailers that sold their milk, including Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, Safeway and Wild Oats. Those lawsuits were ultimately dismissed by a federal judge in June 2009.
The USDA's new “access to pasture” regulations, which will go into effect in June this year, create a much stricter set of guidelines. USDA Certified Organic dairies must allow their cows to graze at least 120 days of the year, and the cows must get at least 30% of their food from pasture during the local grazing season, among other requirements. The changes have been applauded by consumer groups, independent farmers' groups and organic dairies, including Aurora, which has been upgrading and retooling its operations to allow its cows more access to pasture since 2007.
“We are in full support of this rule,” Mark Kastel, co-founder and senior farm-policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, told SN. “The USDA actually listened, very carefully, to the family farming community, and adopted virtually all of their recommendations. When they came out with their draft rule, there were 26,000 comments officially submitted to the USDA, and the consensus agreement that the dairy community came to was really reflected in this final rule.”
Kastel said that the rule would ease the controversy that has arisen over the issue since 2005. He criticized the USDA for taking so long to revise the rule, but said that he hopes its recent ruling is reflective of the farmer-focused way the agency has been handling these matters under Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the Obama administration. But, he dismissed concerns that the prolonged fight may have eroded consumer confidence in the USDA Certified Organic label itself.
“I'm not sure that there was ever a lack of confidence in the organic label,” he said. “We and other [groups] worked very hard to educate consumers, so that they knew which brands were subscribing to both the spirit and the letter of the federal law. And the good news, when we did our research, 90% of all name-brand organic products are produced with high integrity, as is a growing percentage of private label.
“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.”
Access to pasture is a key factor weighed in the Cornucopia Institute's scorecard that ranked various organic dairy brands. Before now, only a handful of private-label brands, from retailers such as Whole Foods, Wegmans, Hy-Vee, Raley's and Save Mart, had managed to obtain a favorable rating.
Kastel acknowledged that private-label relationships can be secretive by nature — after all, a retailer wants shoppers to be loyal to the brand, not the supplier — but said he hoped the new access-to-pasture rule creates additional transparency within the dairy industry, for both name brand dairies and private-label suppliers.
Retailers should expect minimal disruptions to their branded and private-label milk supplies, and wholesale prices should not be affected by these specific rule changes, since most large organic dairy operations have been anticipating these rules and working toward compliance for several years. Notably, Horizon already sources a significant majority of its milk from hundreds of small independent farmers, and in 2006, during a boycott, executives from Whole Foods visited Horizon's corporate farm in Idaho and afterward publicly defended it, noting specifically that “all Horizon cows have daily access to pasture.”
Officials at Aurora, the private-label producer, say that they are also currently compliant with the new pasture rules.
“We don't anticipate any problems implementing the new rule — no operational disruptions,” said Sally Keefe, vice president of government affairs for Aurora.
Keefe noted that “access to pasture” has always been required by the USDA's rules, and said that pasture and grazing have always been a part of Aurora's organic systems plan. But, Aurora has been watching and participating in the debate, and is prepared for the new rules. During the past two years, in particular, the company has upgraded its irrigation systems to make its 4,400 acres of pastureland more consistent for grazing its 15,000 dairy cows in five herds located in Texas and Colorado. The company regularly publishes an “Organic Stewardship Report,” and is subject to annual and unannounced inspections by its certifying agencies, Quality Assurance International and the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
“We would be the first to admit that the phrase ‘access to pasture’ is very broad,” she said. “And that's one reason why we really welcome the clarity that this regulatory change brings. … We believe we are already in compliance. Going from a very short phrase — access to pasture — to the types of definition and specificity that is in this new rule, we are carefully reviewing all of our plans and procedures and protocols to ensure that we're in compliance. But we don't see where it would require any significant changes on our part.”
While the rules won't likely affect supplies or prices of organic milk, the new 120 days per year grazing requirement does present a new selling point for shoppers who have questions about the difference between organic and conventional milk — which will apply to name brands and private-label brands alike.