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Sachpreet Chandhoke/MEDILL

With the new USDA organic dairy pasture rules, consumers can be confident that all organic milk is produced from cows that graze on pastures during the grazing season for a minimum of 120 days.

USDA closes organic milk loophole

by Sachpreet Chandhoke
Feb 16, 2010

Consumers can rest assured that organic milk can be associated with images of cows on green pastures, eating grass still attached to the soil, in a herd, taking in the sunshine.  

“We’ve been trying to get the pasture rule clarified and educate consumers about the organic frauds going on,” said Honor Schauland, campaign assistant at the Organic Consumers Association.  “This is a big victory for us.”  

The new USDA regulation surfaces after a five-year consultation process and 26,000 comments from farmers, retailers and trade associations.    

Since 2000, all organic dairy farms must use organic feed, without antibiotics or hormones. This new regulation requires that dairy cows graze during the grazing season, for a minimum of 120 days, as opposed to the previous rules that were vague and required only access to pasture, but not necessarily the use of it.  

It was this vague terminology – of access versus mandatory grazing – that caused a divide in the organic milk community between smaller farmers and larger corporate operations. 

Two corporate operations, Aurora Organic (which makes the private label milk for Costco) and Horizon (owned by Dean Foods) received negative attention for the lack of grass feed, and the confinement of animals in pens, even though they were technically following the organic standards.  

“There’s no longer this gray area of ‘what is the requirement’,” Schauland said.  “The next step is enforcement.” 

The majority of organic dairy brands in the United States are produced by small farming operations, but the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute estimates corporate operations hold a 30 percent to 40 percent market share in organic milk in the U.S. 

For several Chicago-area organic restaurant owners, the question that remains unanswered is whether this will lead to a price increase in organic milk.  As it stands, organic dairy commands the largest premium over its conventional counterparts as compared with produce or meat, they said.  

“The only thing that would cause the price to rise is if the larger operations decided not to graze, but that would be short-term because many farmers are looking to transition,” said Harriet Behar, organic specialist for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.  

Large corporate operators have said all along that they would adjust to grazing if the standards changed, according to Behar.    

In 2008, a study by Newcastle University in the UK, published in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture, found that organic grazing cows produced milk with higher content of fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamins as compared to conventional cows that were fed grains and were kept indoors.  

Conventional producers, however, do not believe there is any distinction.    

“Organic milk is the exact same milk as conventionally produced milk,” said Jim Fraley, manager of the Illinois Milk Producers.  “Cows would prefer to stay inside.  Cows really prefer to lie down.”  

But, according to Behar grazing is a natural behavior for cows.  

"You have to let them express their natural behavior to prevent stress to avoid hormones and antibiotics," Behar said.  

There is no regulation requiring conventional farmers to grass-feed their herds, according to Behar. But, even if a conventional farmer does graze, it will get mixed in with other grain-fed cow’s milk at the pasteurization plant.  

The debate in the industry has left some consumers unconvinced about the benefits of organic.  

“Unless there is hard scientific proof that something is harmful, I’m skeptical of the organic movement,” said Howard Goss, a 67-year-old resident of Lincoln Park. “I’m of the opinion that there’s a lot of scare tactics out there that does a lot more damage than good.”  

Although there are split opinions on whether grass-fed cows produce more nutritious milk, consumers now know where they can find it.  And if the organic community is convinced of the advantages of its product, then more consumer education is needed.