New York Times
September 14, 2005

JOHN MACKEY, chairman of Whole Foods Market, with the buying power of his 173 stores across the country behind him, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he wants the Department of Agriculture to strengthen its standards for organic milk.

“I’m worried that it is getting bogged down in some kind of political process,” said Mr. Mackey, who wields great power in the organic food industry.

For at least four years, the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the department’s National Organic Program, has sought a regulation to make the standards more rigorous so that milk labeled organic comes from cows that spend a certain amount of time grazing in pastures. Currently dairy farms that keep cows confined most or all of the time can legally claim their milk is organic if they use organic feed and do not use antibiotics or growth hormones.

The current organic standards, which took effect in 2000, require that cows have “access to pasture,” but do not require cows to be put in the pasture.

“We think the average customer believes organic dairy cows are grazing full time,” Mr. Mackey said, “and we would like organic standards to be more rigorous so the perception meets the reality.” Mr. Mackey first discussed his company’s position in an interview with Jim Slama in Conscious Choice, a monthly magazine.

The organic standards board has proposed that dairy cows be allowed to graze during the growing season and that a lactating cow should not be confined in a barn.

Farmers who confine cows can give them high-energy feed that helps them produce more milk than cows on pasture, reducing the cost.

In public comments, two companies opposed the proposal: Aurora Dairy and Wild Oats, the 111-store chain of natural food supermarkets.

Aurora Dairy does not allow its lactating cows in pastures. In its comments Wild Oats said the system was working well because it “facilitates the expansion of the organic milk supply.”

Ed Loyd, press secretary to the Secretary of Agriculture, said that the labeling of milk as organic has been an issue since 1993. “We don’t know whether there is need for additional rule making or for guidance to the industry,” he said.

Within the next 12 months Whole Foods will announce what it calls “compassionate” standards for treatment of dairy cows. Mr. Mackey said he was almost certain the company would go beyond the standards the National Organic Standards Board is seeking.

“We will clearly label products that are not animal compassionate so our customers can be fully informed about their practices,” he said. Those who meet the company’s standards will be so designated.

“We don’t want to see organic standards diluted down to where they don’t mean what consumers think it means,” he said.

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