Beef Controversy Could Delay New Organic Livestock Rulemaking

December 22nd, 2008

Strong Consensus on Dairy Provisions, Cracking down on Factory Farms, Could Be Jeopardized

CORNUCOPIA, WI: Some organic policy experts are asking the USDA to separate new regulations addressing the management of organic beef cattle and organic dairy cows when their final rule comes out updating the organic livestock standards.

After many years of wrangling in Washington, in response to an ongoing controversy over giant factory farms, each milking thousands of cows each and labeling their suspect milk as “organic,” the USDA published a proposed draft rule attempting to constrain factory farming scofflaws. The proposed rule is open for public comment through this coming Tuesday.

“Although we know that legal violations are taking place in feedlots, confining beef cattle instead of allowing them access to pasture, and it’s the same kind of abuse that is taking place on giant organic dairies, we are asking the USDA to engage in separate rulemaking to rein in the violations in beef production,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

The Cornucopia’s Kastel added, “Our concern is that by incorporating new beef standards, which have never been fully discussed by the organic community, we are guaranteeing that powerful agribusiness lobbyists will do everything they can to scuttle the new proposed rules, in their entirety, delaying the long-anticipated rules on dairy.

Unlike when the USDA first engaged in rulemaking on dairy, all stakeholders, farmers, marketers, retailers and consumers, have yet to have a seat at the table discussing the beef proposal in the USDA’s new organic livestock and pasture rule.

The controversy in organic dairying centers on two of the leading marketers, Dean Foods (Horizon) and Aurora (private label for Wal-Mart, Target, Safeway and others), that are now controlling as much as 70% of the organic milk market. The two corporations have built their commanding market shares with reliance on factory farms.

“Every time we have just two companies controlling that much of an agricultural commodity farmers lose, big-time,” said Peter Harden, publisher of the monthly dairy marketing report, The Milkweed.

Over the past eight years the USDA has repeatedly failed to take enforcement action against the large controversial dairies, claiming that the current regulations were too ambiguous.

Through a series of legal complaints filed with the USDA, Cornucopia was able to establish that the current organic livestock rules were indeed enforceable by virtue of the decertification of Dean Foods’ largest independent supplier, a 10,000-cow dairy in California, and a major enforcement scandal involving Aurora in 2007, where the USDA’s investigators determined they had “willfully” violated organic law.

Cornucopia has stated they are currently involved in investigating a number of alleged improprieties at the largest suppliers of organic beef in the United States. One is Promiseland Livestock with 22,000 head, as a result of an investigation started by Cornucopia that is now working its way through the legal system. Promiseland Livestock is slated for decertification by the USDA.

“Just like organic dairy, the USDA has looked the other way while the beef sector has been built by abusing the current standards,” Kastel stated.

Some organic advocates want to tighten the current regulations for beef production assuring access to pasture for the entire grazing season for all beef cattle, just like for dairy cows. The USDA standards are currently being interpreted by the Department to allow confinement for the last few months of a cow’s life, in a feedlot, for “finishing” on corn – based on “stage of production.”

“We can’t even get the USDA to enforce the current regulations, and the Department’s interpretations, as some cows are spending almost all their lives in confinement,” said Will Fantle, Research Director at Cornucopia. “Gaming the system in this manner is repugnant, for good reason, to the most important arbiters in the industry – organic consumers.”

The primary disagreement between organic farmers right now is not whether new rules, addressing abuses on be feedlots should be promulgated. Rather, the issue is whether it should be part of this current rule package that has been driven by abuses at factory dairy farms or handled as a separate rulemaking with wide public input.

“I strongly support separating the rules for meat animals from the extremely complicated dairy issues being debated,” said Jim Munsch, a grass-based organic livestock producer and grazing consultant based in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. “The production systems are different,” Munsch explained. “Without substantially delaying the process, we must include the voices of all farmers and ranchers who understand and live these systems and who will be impacted.’

“The USDA,” according to Munsch, “took a simple issue – getting dairy cattle more pasture – and expanded it two ways. First they expanded it vertically within dairy production to include unrelated topics like bedding materials, water systems, fencing, and more. Then they expanded it horizontally to include beef animals and other ruminants without input from these sectors.”

Public comments on the current USDA draft rules can be submitted, through December 23rd, by visiting: www.regulations.gov. Citizens who have already communicated their comments should know that they can also submit updates or additional points as long as they do so before the end of the public comment period.

The Cornucopia Institute has said that there are four reasons for addressing abuses on beef feedlots in separate rulemaking:

    • 1. Like the National Organic Coalition, and other advocacy groups, Cornucopia has long complained that the USDA has violated the statutory role of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Addressing abuses in organic meat production should start with the NOSB and include all industry stakeholders. Bypassing the expert advisory panel set up by Congress legitimates this violation of the spirit and letter of the organic law, long abused by the USDA, and should not be supported by the public.
      2. Since all important stakeholders in the organic community have not had an opportunity to discuss and organize in support of well-vetted and universally accepted rulemaking language, pushing ahead now will guarantee that agribusiness lobbyists will have a disproportionately large say in the current rulemaking. By addressing beef and other meat production separately, organic stakeholders, with less economic clout, will assuredly be able to organize a more impressive response. Moving ahead now could lead to bad rulemaking that could permanently institutionalize factory farming practices.
      3. Since the draft rule is being criticized by beef production interests, if this controversy remains intertwined with the dairy provisions, it is possible that the lack of consensus could indefinitely delay the needed rulemaking designed to crack down on widespread factory dairy abuses.
      4. One of the options being suggested for current rulemaking would be to allow for feedlot confinement of cattle as long as they have access to pasture. There are concerns that this recommendation, in practice, could allow industrial-scale cattle producers to pay lip service to pasture provisions without requiring true grazing of organic livestock. Without additional language giant feedlots, with thousands of cows, could have a very small scruffy pasture contiguous to the feedlot, where a tiny minority of cows actually go to ruminate. But they would be unlikely to receive significant feed intake from pasture—just like violations on some of the large poultry production facilities where birds “theoretically” have access to the outdoors, but in reality only a minute percentage ever actually go outside. (The Cornucopia Institute has an ongoing investigation into poultry production improprieties as well.)

One of the other organizations that also supports separating beef rulemaking provisions from the USDA draft rule, primarily addressing abuses in organic dairy, is the Organic Grass Fed Beef Coalition. Its president, Ken Pigors, stated, “I was amazed to see a 26-page tome, which included proposals for several new, never heard of before requirements.”

Mr. Pigors also lamented, “The one-size-fits-all misconception is glaringly evident in this document, as the Department has attempted to lump dairy cattle together with beef cattle as if they were the same critter – they are not. I suppose the book they read used the same Latin name for them both – bovine.”

Cornucopia and the Organic Grass Fed Beef Coalition have stated they are both disappointed that the Department did not hold a series of listening sessions, if proposing radical and sweeping changes to the organic standards, before the draft rule was released rather than, as the Department has done, after the fact. “It is obvious that the individuals with the highest level of expertise in raising organic livestock were not consulted when these rules were promulgated,” said Cornucopia’s Fantle.

    More specifics about the USDA’s proposed pasture/livestock rule can be found on the Cornucopia web site.

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