The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued draft rules for organic milk that would require that the cows be on pasture at least half the year and get plenty of fresh grass. The proposals are meant to close a loophole that has allowed some huge feedlots to sell their milk as organic, even though their cows rarely grazed on fresh grass. The public comment period on the draft rules runs through Dec. 23.
Advocates for family dairy farms and organic consumers say that’s not what shoppers think they are buying when they pay a premium for organic milk. Organic advocates are happy that the draft rules would require that organic cows be on pasture for at least 120 days out of the year, and that the animals get at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from grazing during the growing season.
“Pretty much the entire organic community welcomes the long-overdue closing of loopholes for pasture and feed in the organic dairy regulations,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.
The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute helped lead the charge, mainly against two companies: Aurora Organic Dairy, which produces private-label organic milk for national and local retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Co., and Safeway Inc.; and Horizon Organic, the largest national organic dairy brand and a unit of Fort Worth, based-Dean Foods Co., the country’s largest dairy processor and distributor. The Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association called for boycotts and spread the word to its hundreds of thousands of supporters via the Internet. Consumers filed class-action lawsuits.
Organic dairy products are a $2.7 billion industry, about 4 percent of all dairy products sold in 2006, according to the Organic Trade Association.
In the notice published in the Federal Register late last month, the Agriculture Department said consumers and others had made clear their feelings that organic cows should get their nutrition from grazing. In an earlier public comment round, only 28 of more than 80,500 comments were against tightening the rules.
The Agriculture Department also cited surveys conducted by Whole Foods Market Inc., Consumers Union, and the Natural Marketing Institute that found strong backing for requiring grazing for organic cows.