USDA feels heat in response to organic pasture controversy

CORNUCOPIA, Wisconsin, January 12, 2005, the Cornucopia Institute: The USDA's National Organic Program immediately responded to sharp criticism from the organic community alleging that, through complacency, they were allowing large factory farms to produce organic milk while skirting the legal requirement that the cows have access to pasture as a fundamental part of their feed source. The NOP late Monday, January 10, issued an internal memorandum requesting that the National Organic Standards Board develop a strict policy on the pasture requirement so that the agency can issue a guidance document, enhancing enforcement.

The heat was turned up on the agency when a front-page article in the Chicago Tribune compared management practices at the 5600-cow Aurora dairy farm in Colorado and the 4000-cow Horizon farm in Idaho with a more traditional, 70-cow family-scale farm in Wisconsin that ships its milk to the Organic Valley Cooperative. Aurora, Horizon, and Organic Valley are the largest producers and marketers of organic milk in the country.

In addition, The Cornucopia Institute, a progressive farm policy research group, filed a formal complaint on January 10 with the USDA, asking them to initiate an investigation into alleged violations of the federal organic law by Aurora¹s industrial dairy operating in Colorado.

"We are obviously pleased at the rapid response to our concern that factory dairy farms are playing loose with the organic rules. But it shouldn't take the threat of legal action or scrutiny from the news media to wake up our regulators at the USDA," said Mark Kastel of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

A primary mission of The Cornucopia Institute, Kastel noted, is the role of "government watchdog" at the USDA's National Organic Program. Along with other advocacy groups, they have long criticized the agency's adversarial environment.

"It sure is an unusual juxtaposition," Kastel stated. "Every other sector of agriculture fights like hell against regulatory oversight. Here we are, the organic farming community, begging for strict regulation, and it takes political pressure and the power of the press before we get any attention."

"While it appears that the environment is becoming more congenial at the USDA¹s National Organic Program, it is unfortunate that a discernible pattern appears to be emerging," Kastel added. In April 2004 the USDA's National Organic Program promulgated a series of "guidance documents" perceived by many in the organic farming community as loosening up the requirements for organic certification. It wasn't until The Cornucopia Institute and many other organizations and individuals vehemently protested, leading to widespread media coverage, that the USDA withdrew the flawed documents.

"The staff at the NOP clearly responds to heat. But we need an agency that embraces the true spirit of organics, not the past adversarial history." Kastel said.

While organic farmers and consumers await the results of any pending investigation by the USDA, all eyes will be on Washington this March for the next meeting of the National Organic Standards Board. "In the past, the NOSB has proposed strict pasture requirements for livestock producers," said Kastel. "These were never implemented by the agency, so we are now quite interested in seeing if the USDA now concurs and embarks on an aggressive campaign forcing farms that are now not in compliance to file new farm plans and change their management practices."

In their complaint to the USDA, The Cornucopia Institute stated their intention to file additional actions against other factory farms that appear to be profiteering at the expense of organic integrity. For more information: www.cornucopia.org


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