Illegal Practice Damaging Family Farmers and Defrauding Consumers
CORNUCOPIA, WIS: A Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, The Cornucopia Institute, announced this week that it is filing a formal legal complaint in an attempt to immediately halt the USDA from allowing factory farms producing “organic” milk from bringing conventional dairy cattle onto their farms. Cornucopia claims the practice, which places family-scale farmers at a competitive disadvantage, is explicitly prohibited in the federal regulations governing the organic industry.
Conventional replacement dairy calves, typically bought at auctions, likely receive antibiotics, toxic insecticides and parasiticides as well as conventional feed during their first year of life before being “converted” to organics—all practices strictly prohibited in organic production.
“Real organic farmers don’t buy replacement heifers,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “Real organic farmers sell [surplus] heifers.”
Demonstrably lower levels of stress, superior health and improved vitality of the cows separates authentic organic dairy farms from factory farms masquerading as organic, according to the farm policy research group.
“In the factory farm model, the animals are pushed for such high production that, just like in the conventional confinement model, after as few as 1 to 2 years they are so sick, or they are not healthy enough to breed, that they are slaughtered,” Kastel clarified. “Organic cows are generally so healthy, and live such long lives, that many of the baby calves born can be sold to other farmers, creating an alternative revenue stream for organic farmers.”
“We have very healthy young stock,” said Dave Minar, an organic dairy farmer from New Prague, Minnesota. A calf on Minar’s farm stays with its mother for 6-8 weeks after its birth. The calves also become acclimated to the milking parlor (as its mother comes in to be milked every day) and “they are building antibodies when nursing,” Minar added.
Reportedly, because of the illegal practice of bringing conventional heifers onto organic farms, many organic producers cannot receive a premium when selling their surplus certified organic calves and heifers.
Policy experts ask the question as to how federal bureaucrats, starting during the Bush administration, could have possibly blessed a practice that is explicitly banned in the USDA federal organic standards.
Former USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) Chairman Jim Riddle, currently with the University of Minnesota, states, “To allow the continuous introduction of conventional heifers onto organic farms is contrary to a holistic, systems-based approach; plus, it allows animals that may have been given antibiotics or hormones, fed genetically engineered feed, or consumed slaughter by-products [to be brought onto organic farms].” All the practices referenced by Riddle are banned in the organic standards.
The current federal livestock standards (§205.236 Origin of Livestock) state: “Once an entire, distinct herd has been converted to organic production, all dairy animals shall be under organic management from the last third of gestation.” Meaning, before the calf is even born, it must be managed organically.
New York farmer Kathie Arnold, a recognized leader in the organic dairy community, made her feelings clear, “Now that a tough pasture rule is in place, the next very important and needed piece of organic dairy standards work is the realm of dairy replacement animals, in order to have a fair and equitable standard that is the same for all farms.”
For years, the USDA allowed giant organic factory dairies, milking as many as 10,000 cows, to confine their animals in huge feedlots and buildings instead of providing them “access to pasture” as required by federal law. Sparked by Cornucopia’s legal complaints against Aurora Dairy, Dean Foods and others operating phony “organic” feedlot dairies, a movement began to close loopholes and clarify pasture requirements for feed and grazing. The USDA’s release of strict new pasture rules this past February counts as a major victory for organic family farms and consumers.
But bringing in yearling heifers and “converting them to organic,” by managing them organically (organic feed and no banned drugs) during the second year of their life has become standard operating practice at some of the same large industrial dairies.
“Another highly-objectionable facet of the illegal laundering of conventional calves is they are likely fed ‘milk replacer’ instead of fresh organic milk,” noted Kastel.
Feeding milk replacer instead of milk further pads the bottom line of the giant factory dairies. Rather than feed fresh organic milk to their calves, they instead sell that milk to dairy processors. Milk replacer might also contain risky materials tied to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) that are also explicitly banned in organic production and produces cows with weaker immune systems, more susceptible to disease.
Cornucopia’s latest formal legal complaint, in defense of family-scale farmers, spotlights the Natural Prairie Dairy in Dalhart, Texas. The dairy, milking over 7000 cows in two barns, is thought to be the largest certified organic dairy in the United States.
“They are likely selling well over $1 million worth of milk a year, at wholesale farmgate pricing, that would otherwise be legally required to be fed to their calves,” Kastel affirmed. “This illegal and unfair competition has to be stopped immediately.”
Just as they delayed the enforcement requiring pasture, and precluding the feedlot confinement of organic dairy cows, the USDA has claimed they need new rulemaking in order to close loopholes allowing conventional cattle to be brought onto organic operations.
Although it appears that the new administration at the USDA recognizes the impropriety of the current practice, their proposed solution has also been to develop new tighter regulations. Many industry observers are concerned that the rulemaking process could take another two years, or longer, until tighter regulations go into effect.
“The market for organic milk is tightening right now, in late 2010. If major industrial producers are able to continue to bring in conventional cattle, they will force down prices paid to family farmers, endangering their livelihoods,” Kastel said. “That’s why the timing of this enforcement, by the USDA, is so critical.”
Cornucopia contends that protecting consumer confidence in organics is possibly the most important reason to take action on these abuses, which undermine the credibility of the organic label.
“One of the reasons that almost every member-owned natural foods cooperative in the nation no longer sells Horizon dairy products [owned by the dairy giant Dean Foods] is they were allowing the same troubling practice of bringing in conventional cattle,” said Natasha Gill, of the Marquette Food Cooperative in Michigan.
“When they spend extra on organic milk, consumers feel they are supporting both humane animal husbandry and economic fairness for the farmers who produce their food. These illegal practices have to stop now,” Gill added.
The Cornucopia Institute has published a comprehensive report on organic dairy, including a scorecard rating over 120 brands of organic dairy products (milk, cheese, butter, ice cream etc.). It is designed to empower consumers and wholesale buyers so that they can make good purchasing decisions, rewarding the true organic farming heroes in the marketplace: