WASHINGTON - May 10 - Proposed new federal organic livestock regulations are coming under sharp criticism for failing to close critical loopholes that are allowing a handful of factory-scale dairy farms in western states to continue bringing into their milk herd new animals raised with antibiotics, hormones, and genetically engineered feed produced with toxic pesticides.
The new rules ignore recommendations endorsed by the USDA’s own expert advisory panel, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). In 2002 and 2003, the NOSB unanimously passed recommendations that all animals being brought onto an existing organic dairy farm had to be under organic management starting no later than the last three months of pregnancy.
“Bringing in nonorganic animals is an unethical management practice that violates the trust of consumers,” said Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group.
According to opinion research, consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organic dairy products in part because they believe that USDA regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics, hormones, and genetically engineered feed on organic farms.
"In the study that we released last month, Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk, which rates the country's organic dairy brands, (http://www.cornucopia.org/), we found that the majority of organic dairy producers are able to replenish their herds, on an ongoing basis, through on-farm reproduction,” said Kastel. "But these large factory dairies, which are an anathema to organic consumers and farmers alike, push their cows for such high productivity that their ill health and short life spans require constantly bringing replacement animals into the milk herd. This is not organic!" Many of these large dairies have also been accused of confining their cattle rather than allowing them to graze on pasture as required by the federal regulations.
A federal lawsuit, successfully brought by Maine blueberry farmer and organic purist Arthur Harvey, has required the USDA to correct certain language in their organic regulations. Industry analysts assumed that since the NOSB was on record in favor of closing the replacement animal loopholes, that they would take the opportunity to do so at the same time. Instead, it appears that the Department might be following the lead of the industry's dominant milk marketer, Dean Foods, and the Organic Trade Association, an industry lobby group, which have suggested postponing action on this issue for up to an additional two years.
"Some of these large factory farms, including one operated by Dean Foods that is selling milk under their Horizon label, are gaming the system,” said Kastel. Dean has admitted to shareholder groups that in order to maximize profits, they sell all of the calves born on their 4000-head farm, allowing them to save on providing expensive organic feed to animals for the first year of their life. They then purchase one-year-old animals that have been administered drugs and been fed nonorganic feed to replenish their herd.
"It is unconscionable that this $11 billion company, the nation's largest conventional and organic milk processor, is deceiving consumers by suggesting that their animals are not raised using antibiotics, hormones, and other banned substances," testified Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association. "We are particularly concerned that their calves may have very well ingested BSE (mad cow) risk materials that are allowed in conventional farming but have been banned in organics as a safeguard and firewall against the spread of the disease," added Cummins.
“While other ‘legitimate’ organic farmers are providing the same quality organic milk to their calves as consumers would pick up at the store, Horizon's factory farm in Idaho is selling $700,000– $1,000.000 in additional milk that they should instead be feeding to their young calves and future replacement animals. This puts ethical family-scale producers at a huge competitive disadvantage,” stated Kastel, Cornucopia's Senior Farm Policy Analyst.
"Not addressing these loopholes after the organic community has worked so hard to come to agreement is disappointing," stated James Riddle, University Of Minnesota Organic Outreach Coordinator and the immediate past NOSB chairman. “The NOSB has solicited public input from the industry and promulgated recommendations on this and a myriad of other pressing issues that the USDA has failed to act on,” Riddle lamented.
Some industry observers, and longtime critics of the USDA, have suggested that federal regulators have become too cozy with giant agribusiness concerns, like Dean Foods. Many big companies have heavily invested in organic brands through the acquisition of smaller companies and organic labels while the organic industry has grown from a small niche into a booming $15 billion market category.
The Cornucopia Institute, which acts as an organic industry watchdog, has also sent a letter to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns requesting that he order bureaucrats in the National Organic Program to extend the current 15 day public comment period by a minimum of an additional 60 days to allow interested stakeholders in the organic industry to have a voice in the matter. Comments are currently due by May 12th.
The uncharacteristically short opportunity for public input comes right as some farmers are working 15 to 18 hours per day in the rush of spring planting. An additional conflict is the fact that the industry's premier trade show, All Things Organic, just ended in Chicago. Many organic business leaders were tied up for as long as a week because of the conference.
"During the last five years USDA inaction has allowed a handful of mega-farms, in the arid West, milking 2000–10,000 cows, to grab a growing share of the organic milk market,” Kastel said. “Our study found that over 80% of the name-brand organic dairy products are produced with high integrity. We cannot allow a few bad actors to economically injure our nation's family farmers and put the reputation of the organic label at risk,” the Kastel added.
Farmers and consumers interested in notifying the USDA of their concerns can easily share their views with the officials by using Cornucopia’s Web page at http://cornucopia.org