Dispute: What Makes Milk Organic?

In the seemingly bucolic world of green pastures and "happy cows," some ugly feuding is taking place.

A collection of organic dairy farmers have been taking aim at larger farms that also market their product as organic. The contention is that the larger farms have been taking advantage of vague wording in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic food guidelines and are housing cows in industrial-like facilities while selling their brand with the certified organic label.

"Consumers pay a premium to feel like they're supporting a certain environmental ethic and the humane treatment of animals," said Mark Kastel, senior farm analyst with the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin. "These factory farms don't conform to that philosophy."

Representatives of the larger farms say these are false accusations and that they are in full compliance with USDA organic standards.

The clash gets at just what the term "organic" means when it comes to milk. In addition to the assurance that cows aren't given synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics, does "organic" mean the milk comes from smaller farms where cows are led to pasture on a daily basis? Or does it only mean the cows are fed organic food that is pesticide-free?

At stake are the profits of an increasingly successful industry. Organic food sales rose at an average annual rate of 19.5 percent between 1997 and 2003, according to the Organic Trade Association's most recent survey. Organic dairy made up a significant part of that growth, with sales increasing by 22.5 percent each year in the same period to $1.4 billion.

In the first round to address the dispute, smaller farms appear to have scored a small victory.

Tightening Rules

The main area of contention is pasture and just how much time organic dairy cows spend grazing. At the urging of a number of organic farmers, members of the National Organic Standards Board met earlier this month and suggested closing what they considered to be two loopholes in the USDA's rules for pasture requirements of organic dairy cows.

"Basically, the way the rules are written now, there is the possibility to produce organic milk with cows that never go outside and off concrete," said Hubert Karreman, a dairy cow veterinarian in Lancaster County, Pa., and member of the 15-member organic standards board.

Karreman explains that one of the USDA rules require that the cows have "access to pasture," but he says that wording doesn't assure the animals actually go to pasture.

"You can throw the gates open, but if you offer them rich grain inside, they're not going to go out to pasture," he said.

Kastel, of the Cornucopia Institute, further argues that a farm with thousands of cows can't possibly provide its animals with true pasture feeding.

"If a farm has 4,000 cows and milks them two to three times a day, there's no way to do that and have pasture," he said. "These cows have to walk back and forth to a barn two to three times a day. It's impossible to get that many cows to fresh grass and back to the barn in time. They can't move fast enough."

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