We've reported before on a disturbing disease that's been plaguing large-scale organic dairies: Absencia Grassosis. Sounds pretty nasty, doesn't it? Loosely translated, it means lack of grass. Industrial-organic companies including Aurora (supplier of organic milk to Safeway and other private-label brands) and Horizon (owned by dairy giant Dean Foods) have already fallen ill with it. If it's allowed to fester and spread, it could seriously hobble the strength of the organic label - because last time I checked, organic consumers expected that their milk came from cows that actually munched on healthy pasture, not just gazed at it from inside a giant feedlot.
Unfortunately, Absencia Grassosis has received scant attention from the agency best positioned to provide the antidote to the disease: the USDA. Charged with safeguarding and enforcing the standards behind the organic label — which include the requirement that organic dairies give their cows access to pasture — USDA has sidestepped its responsibilities for years. While the agency did actually investigate Aurora for non-compliance with the organic standards and found it responsible for 14 separate violations, it didn't de-certify or even fine the dairy. Instead, it issued a consent agreement whose message was, in essence, "no worries about all those corners you've been cutting - just try to avoid them next time."
One of the USDA's excuses for such lousy policing was that it claimed it didn't know what "access to pasture" meant, so it couldn't enforce it. That changed in October: After more than 85,000 letters [PDF] from organic groups and consumers, USDA published a draft rule spelling it out. And surprisingly, the rule was really strong. So strong, in fact, that it could be torched by Aurora and co. unless we work quickly to get it fixed up and finalized.
The deadline for comments on the "pasture rule" is fast approaching: those of us who care about the integrity of the organic label have to weigh in by Dec. 23rd. But this one's a little tricky. A circular firing squad of sorts has congregated on this patch of certified organic pasture, with the Big Organic dairy and meat industry aiming at one aspect, certain organic farming groups at another, and one organic watchdog group firing sporadically into the air. It's pretty easy to slip on all this grassroots spin. So before you head over to the Organic Farming Research Foundation's website to shoot off an email to the USDA telling them to keep the rule but make a few reasonable changes, here's some background to chew on.
Search and season
There's no question that the proposed rule goes overboard in some respects. Example No. 1: it requires cows to be out on pasture all the time during the growing season, which the USDA defines as the time between the last killing frost in the spring and the first killing frost in the fall/winter. Family dairy producers worry that the strict language could prevent them from being able to bring their animals inside during inclement weather (anyone who's been caught in a Midwestern spring thunderstorm or felt New Hampshire summer hail can probably appreciate the sentiment), while producers in regions where there is no frost fear that they won't be able to keep their pasture healthy if cows have to be on it 365 days a year.
Long-laboring groups in the organic community, among them the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the National Organic Coalition (whose membership includes family dairy farmers), have endorsed a set of changes that keeps the pasture rule strong but takes out the absurdities. "Growing season" is changed to "grazing season," defined as at least 120 days but up to 365 days a year, depending on where you are, when cows can reasonably be out on pasture. It doesn't have to be continuous, so farmers can sustainably manage their land and/or keep their cows from death by lightning strike when they need to.
Sometimes a feedlot is just a feedlot
If you're getting lulled to sleep by all this talk of grazing seasons, here's something to jolt you back to life: the proposed rule went further than anyone was expecting and actually banned organic feedlots outright. This is a huge deal. Many organic beef producers finish their cows in feedlots just like the conventional guys do, except that they use organic grain. While that might get you the fatty, tender, exercise-starved steak U.S. consumers are used to, it doesn't exactly fit the vision of most consumers who buy organic. At least it doesn't fit mine. In the OFRF/NOC recommendations mentioned above, the feedlot ban stays firmly in the rule.
Predictably, Aurora and other big organic players are fighting the rule. They too argue that it's overly strict, but I shudder to think of what their proposed changes would look like. After all, Aurora defined "access to pasture" as a drylot pen in the Idaho desert.
But in perhaps the strangest twist to the grassy saga, the Cornucopia Institute - which all along has led the attack against the abuse of the organic label by large dairy companies - has been sending mixed messages about the rule. It issued an alarmist action alert when the rule was published, declaring that "the proposed rule could shut down organic family farmers" because it was overly prescriptive. For a while, it looked like it might oppose the rule outright. It appears that the institute has now endorsed the recommendations submitted by NOC and others, but with one critical difference: It opposes banning feedlots for grain-finished organic beef.
Well, I have some beef with that. Cornucopia argues that banning feedlots now would "radically change the industry and could force some operators out of business." Perhaps. But it's a change that consumers and the organic industry should support if we want to preserve the integrity — and value, to the farmers, the animals, and the land — of the organic label. Folks pay a premium for organic meat and dairy because they want healthier products from animals that haven't been subject to the same conditions as factory livestock, not because they're OK with feedlots as long as they run on non-GMO corn.
As the saying goes, if we don't stand together, we don't stand at all - and the rule gets thrown out. The conspiracist in me thinks that may be just what the USDA was hoping for.
You can add your voice for the call to finalize this strong rule, along with a few reasonable changes such as the aforementioned "grazing season" tweak, by following the instructions on OFRF's website before December 23rd. It's the best gift we could give organic farmers and consumers this holiday season.