The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042

Last Minute Rulemaking by Bush USDA Threatens Organic Farmers

Consumers and Farmers Join Together to Promote Organic Integrity


Many media outlets, from the New York Times to the blogosphere, have
tracked what has been dubbed the "corporate takeover" of organic
farming. One of the hottest controversies in this rapidly growing $20 billion
industry has been giant factory farms milking thousands of cows each in
feedlots and masquerading as organic. Some of these industrial dairies are
controlled by the nation's largest agribusinesses.

Since the organic community first appealed to the USDA for
better clarification and enforcement of regulations requiring organic dairy
producers to graze their cattle, nearly 9 years ago, the number of giant industrial
dairy operations, with as many as 10,000 cows, has grown from two to
approximately 15. After years of delay, the USDA has finally responded with a new
proposed rule that they said would crack down on abuses.

"The birds have come home to roost," said Mark
Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute. The
Wisconsin-based farm policy research group estimates there are 35,000 to 45,000
cows on giant CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) operating in the
United States producing as much as 40% of the nation's organic milk supply.

"These CAFOs are producing so much milk that they have depressed
pricing and profit margins for organic family farmers, and now some are being
forced out of business by this distressing situation," Kastel said. "Organics
was supposed to be the antidote to family farmers being forced off the

The Cornucopia Institute has filed formal legal complaints
with the USDA aimed at compelling the agency to enforce organic livestock and
management rules. These actions have led to the shut down or penalizing of
some of what they call "organic scofflaws." But many in the industry
criticized the agency for failing to fully investigate many other alleged
violations on giant farms, including several that supply milk to the nation's
largest dairy processor, Dallas-based Dean Foods.

The new USDA rule proposal and its analysis total 26 pages,
as published in the Federal Register. The draft rule complies with organic
community requests to close specific loopholes being exploited by factory farms
confining their cattle. But it also represents the broadest rewrite of federal
organic regulations in the $20 billion industry's relatively short history.

Some farm advocates believe that the new rules, if enacted,
would put out of business the majority of organic livestock
farmers-including hundreds who are operating ethically.

"At first we were delighted that the USDA had stopped
their delaying tactics and finally published a rule cracking down on the large
factory farms that have been 'scamming' organic consumers and
placing ethical family farmers at a competitive disadvantage," stated Bill
Welch, former member of the National Organic Standards Board and an Iowa
livestock producer. "Many in the industry have spent the past weeks
carefully examining this dense document, and it has become painfully clear that
it would not only crack down on certain factory farm abuses, but it's
also so restrictive that it would likely put the majority of family farmers producing
organic milk and meat out of business.

"It's inexcusable," noted Ronnie
Cummins, Director of the Organic Consumers Association, "that the USDA would
allow, as part of this rule, that conventional cattle can be brought onto
organic farms, and milked, on a continuous basis."

In response to the USDA's sweeping livestock/pasture
proposal, a consortium of organizations representing organic family farmers has
crafted an "alternative" rule proposal. Led by FOOD Farmers, with
support from The Cornucopia Institute, organic certifiers, and other policy
experts, the revisions they have drafted would carry out what is said to be the
will of the organic community, farmers and consumers.

"You don't have to take the word of The Cornucopia
Institute alone that the Department has 'Katrina-ed' the organic
industry," Kastel stated. "The USDA rule proposal is just the
latest salvo in this fight," added Kastel. He noted that audits by the
American National standard Institute (ANSI) and the Inspector General's office
were both highly critical of the USDA's execution of its Congressional mandate
to oversee the organic industry.

The community's alternative proposal, which is now
being circulated among organic farmers and consumer groups, would require that
all organic dairy, sheep, goat, and beef producers graze their animals for the
entire grazing season and sets a minimum percentage of feed from pasture.

A growing body of scientific literature illustrates the
nutritional superiority of milk and meat from organic animals that are grazed
on fresh grass, including higher levels of antioxidants and beneficial fats,
like omega-3 fatty acids, that protect against cancer and heart disease.

"The good news continues to be that the vast majority
of all organic dairy brands available in the marketplace
use milk produced by family farmers," observed Cummins. "These farmers
truly uphold the high expectations that their customers have," Cummins

The Cornucopia Institute just updated their path-breaking research
study of the organic dairy sector. The group's scorecard (found at, reveals that 85% of
the nation's 110 organic dairy brands are meeting the letter and spirit of current
organic federal law. "Out of 1800 organic dairy farms in this country,
the very few factory farms are a bad aberration, although they are producing
huge quantities of milk," explained Cornucopia's Kastel.

Because of the broad scope of the USDA's proposed rule
making, Cornucopia, the Organic Consumers Association, and some the largest
organic certifiers and other groups representing farmers and consumers are formally
asking the USDA to extend the public comment period for an additional 30 days
to January 23, 2009.

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New, major policies proposed by the USDA
livestock/pasture rule (never reviewed or recommended by the National Organic
Standards Board) include:

  1. Eliminating
    the fattening of beef cattle on grain, in feedlots, for the last few
    months of their lives. Although many might view this proposal as
    meritorious it would radically change the industry and could force some
    operators out of business. Full analysis and discussion by the
    organic community is vitally necessary.

  1. Requiring
    animals to be outside year-round, without exemptions for extreme weather
    conditions, would put the lives and well-being of livestock at risk and
    economically injure farmers.

  1. Setting
    aside part of a farmer's land in a "sacrifice" pasture for when
    weather conditions make grazing unsuitable. This might be a
    provision that some current operators cannot meet and might violate
    certain state and federal environmental standards. This may have positive
    application, but its overall impacts have never been fully analyzed.

  1. Classifying
    bees and fish as livestock will likely garner positive and negative
    response from that industry sector depending on its perceived present and
    future regulatory impact.

  1. The
    USDA draft rule ignores the NOSB recommendation to eliminate the
    "continual transition" of conventional cattle, brought onto
    organic dairy operations. The industry has universally agreed that
    all animals brought onto a farm, after its initial transition to organics,
    must be managed organically from the last third of gestation.
    Animals raised for meat already have to meet this higher standard.
    Many industry experts feel that the USDA has misinterpreted the law, for
    years, allowing giant factory farms to "burn out" their cattle
    and prematurely sending them to slaughter, then replace them with cheap
    conventional cattle on an ongoing basis. This new rulemaking
    proposes that the Department's "misinterpretations" become
    institutionalized as law.

"This 26-page document put forth by
the USDA may so muddy the water that we could be facing years of additional
delays until the widely agreed-upon provisions for dairy are enacted,"
said Kastel.

Certain industry players, including the
dairy giant Dean Foods and Aurora Dairy, the nation's largest private-label
producer of organic milk (Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Safeway, etc.) have based
their business model on exploiting the trust of the organic consumer and
violating both the spirit and letter of the organic law (full documentation

The USDA's proposed pasture rule,
along with the "alternative" proposal endorsed by organic farmers and
consumers, can be viewed at:

The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.