BY Jim Slama

When you pick up organic milk at your local grocery, you probably have visions of happy cows, frolicking in a beautiful pasture, chewing their cuds and basically hanging out.

You may be surprised to learn that this may not necessarily be the case.

In recent months there has been a raging controversy in the organic world concerning organic dairy farms. There is concern that some large-scale organic dairy operations are currently not giving their cows access to pasture and instead keeping them confined in relatively small areas. In essence this is the same industrial model that rules the conventional dairy world where factory farms are the norm.

Last month the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) created a new guidance document that would revise organic standards and mandate access to pasture for dairy cows. (The NOSB is authorized by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to maintain the integrity of organic standards.) Yet at the same meeting, the USDA did not allow the rule changes.

“We were very surprised and frustrated at the decision to not go ahead with the recommendation,” said Jim Riddle, the chair of the NOSB. “This could delay implementation for over a year.”

We spoke with three of the story’s most important players:

Senior Analyst Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, created a wave of controversy and media attention in the organic dairy industry in February when he filed complaints with the USDA against Horizon Organic, Aurora Dairy, and a farm owned by Case Vander Eyk, Jr., alleging that they were engaging in factory farming operations. The Institute’s complaints asked the USDA to investigate whether these three farms were violating the law by milking a large number of cows in a relatively small setting, without legitimate access to pasture, and still labeling the milk organic.

On large scale organic dairy farms
Large-scale factory dairies, masquerading as organic farms, are not
good for anyone. They threaten the environment, they don’t treat workers well, the cows are kept in confinement, and the milk produced lacks some of the beneficial, health enhancing components found in milk from legitimate organic farms. In addition, if these mega-dairies proliferate they ultimately will erode consumer’s confidence in the organic label. There is no place for these operations in organic agriculture and I hope the USDA takes the steps to protect consumers from unknowingly purchasing milk from them.
Let’s look at the Horizon facility in Idaho. 4,200 milking cows means there are probably well over 5,000 total when you count young animals. It’s impossible to graze 5,000+ cows on the few hundred acres Horizon implies. For that many cows, in the arid West, they would literally need thousands of acres, not hundreds.

On the USDA
Cornucopia is concerned that the USDA blocked efforts by the National Organic Standards Board to close the loopholes that allow factory farmed milk to be labeled organic. The Board has been working on this for over five years. Since there is about to be a large transition of members on the NOSB, on the surface it seems like they might be waiting for a new Board to be in place so they can water down the recommendations.

While some people claim that the notion of stacking the board is just another conspiracy theory, I am not so sure. We have reports from a number of authoritative sources that some of the major industry players are continuing to make investments in additional large scale confinement dairies despite the fact that the organic community has come to a clear consensus against farms without pasture. Due to this, many farmers continue to ask the question, “What do these big corporations know that we don’t know?”

Kevin O’Rell is Vice President of Research and Development for Horizon Organic and the Vice Chair of the National Organic Standards Board. Horizon Organic sells more organic milk than any company in the world. The company is owned by Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy processor and distributor. In his dual role as Horizon employee and NOSB member, O’Rell for the first time went on the record about this issue.

On Horizon Organic
Horizon Organic has been a pioneer in organics and is a leader in giving consumers access to high quality organic milk. Over 70% of our milk comes from 350 family farms that we have contracts with and we are in the process of adding another 100 family farms to keep up with growing demand. Horizon Organic is responsible for transitioning hundreds of thousands of conventional acres to organic across the country, including 70,000 acres in Idaho alone.

On its 4,200 head dairy operation in Idaho
Today, this farm is in full compliance with current organic standards. We also are redesigning the facility to insure that the cows will have access to pasture by adding hundreds of acres of additional certified organic land for them to graze on. When this transition is complete, this will be a model facility for large-scale organic milk production.

On the NOSB and its proposed rule changes for dairy
Horizon strongly supported the rule change that mandates access to pasture for all dairy cows. As vice chair of the NOSB, I was surprised that the USDA delayed the adoption of the new regulations, but understand their concern to get the rules correct so they stand up to the rulemaking process. I believe the new rule recommendations from the NOSB will be addressed by the spring meeting.

Whole Foods Market Chairman John Mackey has built his company into the largest organic retailer in the world. In recent years he has led an effort within the company to create stronger standards for the care of animals. Because of Whole Foods’ buying power, it is likely this effort will have a major impact on the entire organic and natural meat and dairy industries.

On the NOSB and its proposed rule changes for dairy
Whole Foods Market was pleased that the National Organic Standards Board passed a guidance document that will create stringent requirements mandating that organic dairy farmers give their animals access to pasture. This will close glaring loopholes that have allowed some companies to use factory farming style operations to produce organic milk. Our customers want real organic milk that comes from healthy cows that are raised on pastures as dairy cows have been traditionally raised. It is imperative that this directive becomes law as soon as possible.

On the USDA
It is disappointing to me that the USDA has not yet adopted the NOSB’s recommendations. We encourage the Agency to approve the NOSB’s recommendations at their November meeting. If language needs to be tweaked to make it appropriate for federal rulemaking, then the Agency could work with board members prior to the meeting to get it done.

Whole Foods Market would also like to see the Agency adopt more transparency with the appointment of NOSB members. With over a third of the board about to turn over, it is critical that the Agency give stakeholders an opportunity to provide input about potential appointments. We also support the USDA’s hiring of an executive director for the NOSB, and hope to see the position posted soon. The NOSB plays a critical role in protecting the integrity of organic foods and we believe it needs a full time manager.

On Large Scale Organic Dairy Farms
Large-scale organic dairy farms with 4,000 to 6,000 cows that don’t have proper access to pasture are not what Whole Foods customers think of when they buy organic milk. In my opinion, even if they currently meet federal organic standards, these are factory farming practices and they have no place in organic agriculture. While the vast majority of the organic milk sold in our stores comes from sources that would meet the proposed NOSB standards, we understand that some would not. Therefore we are in the process of notifying our milk suppliers that we wish them to revise their practices to be congruent with the guidance document approved by the National Organic Standards Board calling for mandatory access to pasture for dairy cows.

On Promoting Animal Compassion
Whole Foods is setting up animal compassion standards for all products that come from animals. I expect that when the standards for dairy cows are finalized, we will require that these animals have access to pasture. This will include a minimum square footage requirement that makes certain that animals have adequate room to roam and engage in behaviors typical to dairy cows. Any operation that doesn’t provide access to appropriate levels of pasture won’t qualify as animal compassionate under our standards whether they are organic or not. Milk coming from companies that do not meet the standards will not be sold in our stores as animal compassionate regardless of whether it is organic or not.

On Factory Farming
Twenty-five years from now, I believe that factory farming in the United States will probably be illegal. First we have to create more compassionate alternatives. As we create a high standard alternative, people will be willing to look at factory farms more closely. They will move out of denial when they understand that there is an alternative. Our descendants will probably look back at this time with horror at the way we treated livestock animals just as we now look back with horror to the way our ancestors exploited the Native Americans, blacks, and women. Animals may not have equal value to human beings, but they are also sentient beings that can feel pain and suffer. I believe that they deserve a decent life and as pain free a death as possible.

For more information:
Horizon Organic
The Cornucopia Institute
Whole Foods Market
USDA National Organic Program

Jim Slama is the founder of which builds markets for local, organic farmers.

Copyright 2005, Dragonfly Media

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