Imagine that you just bought your young child organic milk at the store, thinking that it is completely free of growth hormones or antibiotics — something that is promised under organic rules.
However, due to loopholes in regulations as to how animals may be purchased at organic dairy farms, the cows that produced your milk could have received growth hormones and antibiotics a month, or even weeks, before these cows produced your child’s glass of organic milk.
Unfortunately, this is a very realistic scenario and just one of many taking place because of the USDA’s refusal to address, clarify and tighten the regulations around organic dairy.
As a result…..
– Organic consumers are being misled because not all the organic milk they are purchasing is truly organic.
– The lives of organic farmers are being devastated because some certifiers are allowing ‘organic factory dairy farms’ to manipulate the system, thereby creating an unfair playing field for the small family farms who are doing things the right way.
– The integrity of the organic seal is suffering irreparable harm.
Part of the issue is that organic certifiers throughout the country are interpreting components of organic dairy rules in different ways, something that was corroborated by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General’s report in 2013. However, the USDA has done nothing since then to rectify this problem.
Melissa Hughes, General Counsel and Chief Mission Officer at Organic Valley, called out one USDA accredited organic certifier, Idaho State Department of Agriculture, and said that its “egregious interpretation of how livestock (dairy) achieve organic status……is a new level of inconsistency we have never seen in 30 years of organic dairy.”
The organic industry recognizes the severity of this matter and is hardly sitting on its hands. Dozens of dairy, trade and farming organizations have all sent letters to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue urging him to address this problem.
However, according to Abby Youngblood, Executive Director of the National Organic Coalition, the current administration took this organic dairy issue off of the regulatory agenda in 2018, and it has not been put back on.
TWO AREAS OF CONCERN
The problems in organic dairy center around two rules: access to pasture and origin of livestock.
Access to Pasture: – animals must have a minimum of 120 days on pasture, and this number could be greater depending on geographic location.
Many people believe that access to pasture rules are not a problem per se but enforcement is.
Industry watchdog The Cornucopia Institute has been warning people about this since the organization was formed 15 years ago and asserts that it is simply not logistically possible for many ‘organic factory dairy farms’ to provide their animals the required access to acreage meeting the legal definition of pasture. Additionally, The Washington Post exposed this access to pasture problem in the paper’s high-profile investigation of Aurora Dairy.
At the 2018 National Organic Standards Board meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jennifer Tucker, who oversees the National Organic Program, announced that the USDA would be initiating its Dairy Compliance Project in 2019. The results and effectiveness of the program remain to be seen.
Origin of Livestock: – The specific concern for many groups is the lack of consistency from organic certifiers in how conventional cows are transitioned into organic production.
The predominantly held interpretation is that a whole dairy herd can be converted to organic over a 12-month period — once. Not multiple times.
However, some certifiers are allowing dairy operations to use various LLCs and separate ownership structures to circumvent the rules, thereby transitioning dairy animals continuously into organic over time, using a 12-month conversion period for each animal transitioned.
Additionally, animals that are simply in the transition phase are being sold to other farms as organic bovine dairy animals.
Both of these things are allowing major organic dairies to grow into 2,000 – 5,000 herd operations very quickly.
WHAT TO DO
Based on our conversations with industry experts, the best thing that people can do is to raise this organic dairy issue with their elected representatives in Congress and have them pressure the USDA to get this on the agency’s agenda for 2019.
“This is dramatically serious and a very depressing situation. Unless we solve this problem soon, hundreds of organic dairy farms will go out of business, and the effect on rural economies will be catastrophic. In 3-4 years, we could be faced with a situation where all organic milk will come from large-scale dairies,” warned Ed Maltby, Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.
Max Goldberg, Founder
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