Dispute: What Makes Milk Organic?

March 14, 2005 — -- 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."

The board's suggested new wording spells out that the animals graze on pasture during the growing season. They also specify that only cows in certain stages of life (younger than 6 months or any cows that are ill) be kept inside. Current wording says that cows in certain "stages of production" may be kept inside. Kastel and others say that larger farms have been interpreting that rule to mean that lactating cows may be kept inside.

How Much Grazing Makes an Organic Cow?

One thing the new wording does not spell out, however, is just how much dairy cows need to graze on pasture to be considered organic. To address this issue, the board released a guidance statement to try and begin to detail pasture requirements for organic dairy cows.

The statement, which has been posted for public comment, suggests that pasture requirements would either stipulate that a minimum of 30 percent of an organic dairy cow's dry food intake over 120 days be from pasture grazing. Or, alternatively, the board suggested the requirements be based on regional soil standards that are already determined by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The latter rule would presumably mean that cows in drier regions would have less pasture requirements that those in areas with richer soil.

Officers at Aurora Organic Dairy in Boulder, Colo., have argued that soil and pasture quality by region is an important point when it comes to grazing. Aurora Organic Dairy is one of the largest organic dairy farms in the country, with some 4,250 milking cows. It, along with Horizon Organic Dairy, has been the main targets of allegations from smaller organic farmers.

Aurora's representatives refused to speak on the record about the matter, but in past interviews, Mark Retzloff, Aurora Organic's president, has pointed out that the region in Colorado where Aurora is based has generally drier and less fertile pasture than, say, farms in Vermont. He argued it is better to use the limited fertile land to raise organic grain to feed their cows, rather than as pasture.

Clark Driftmier, Aurora's senior vice president of marketing, released a statement saying: "Our company is in full compliance with the NOP rules as currently interpreted. Looking to the future, we are developing both short-term and longer-term plans to significantly increase the amount of pasture available to all of our cows at every state of life and reproduction, including during lactation."

One of Aurora Organic's mottos is "We make organic goodness affordable," since its larger farm size allows the company to reduce its price for organic dairy products. But even Aurora's organic dairy products generally cost more than their nonorganic counterparts.

A key question is: What are consumers paying for when they turn over the extra cash for organic products?

The Organic Premium

If the issue is health, some point to studies showing that milk produced by grass-fed cows contains a boost in the amount of an essential fatty acid known as conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA.

On the other hand, even those organic milk brands that promise grass-fed cows often super-pasteurize their products to extend their shelf life since they collect the milk from a widely dispersed collection of small farms. Other studies have argued the ultra-pasteurization process steals more vitamins and healthy bacteria from the product than normal pasteurization.

Either way, all organic dairy companies offer consumers the promise of a product from organically fed, growth hormone-free cows.

Health issues aside, others may be buying organic milk to support the idea of a humane farm with "happy" cows. If that's the case, Karreman says it's important that the USDA standards are clear enough to ensure that organic dairy products deliver on that promise.

"There is a perception that this milk comes from happy cows on grass," he said. "I think we need to confirm that perception instead of undercutting it."