By STEVE KARNOWSKI | The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS – A long struggle over what kind of milk counts as organic is coming to a head.

The Department of Agriculture has issued draft rules for organic milk that would require that the cows be on pasture at least half the year and get plenty of fresh grass. The proposals are meant to close a loophole that has allowed some huge feedlots to sell their milk as organic, even though their cows rarely grazed on fresh grass.

Advocates for family dairy farms and organic consumers say that’s not what shoppers think they’re buying when they pay a premium for organic milk.

“Pretty much the entire organic community welcomes the long-overdue closing of loopholes for pasture and feed in the organic dairy regulations,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.

“The controversy has dragged on so long,” agreed George Siemon, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and chief executive officer of Organic Valley, the nation’s largest farmer-owned organic dairy cooperative.

The public comment period on the draft rules runs through Dec. 23.

The issue started to boil over a few years ago when it emerged that a handful of large dairy farms with thousands of cows, mostly in arid western states, were feeding their cows organic grain but keeping them largely confined to feedlots while selling the milk as organic.

The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute helped lead the charge, mainly against two companies: Aurora Organic Dairy, which produces private-label organic milk for national and local retailers including Wal-Mart, Costco and Safeway; and Horizon Organic, the largest national organic dairy brand. The Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association called for boycotts and spread the word to its hundreds of thousands of supporters via the Internet. Consumers filed class-action lawsuits.

“We have literally millions of consumers who give a damn and are highly passionate and willing to stand up and protect the integrity of their food supply,” said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at Cornucopia.

Organic dairy products are a $2.7 billion industry, about 4 percent of all dairy products sold in 2006, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic dairy is growing faster than the organic sector as a whole, and is an important entry point for consumers who are new to organics, said Holly Givens, a spokeswoman for the association.

Kastel’s watchdog group said the number of big industrial organic dairies has grown from just two in 2000 to 14 or 15 today, and they are producing about 40 percent of the organic milk supply. That’s depressing prices and forcing legitimate family farms out of business, he said.

Organic advocates are happy that the draft rules would require that organic cows be on pasture for at least 120 days out of the year, and that the animals get at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from grazing during the growing season.

But they’ve got some concerns.

“It’s too prescriptive,” Siemon said. It will be a burden for small and midsize dairy farms like Organic Valley’s to comply with all the detailed requirements, he said. Just one example, he said, is a requirement specifying that drinking water equipment must be cleaned weekly.

Cummins objected to a provision that would let organic dairies bring in conventionally raised heifers and sell their milk as organic. His group says only cows raised organically from birth should be added to organic herds.

Read this in The Chicago Tribune (this link no longer available)

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