USDA’s National Organic Program had come in for criticism for a lack of clarity over how much access animals need to pasture in order to qualify as organic, and the new rule has been welcomed by consumer and industry representatives who say it creates clear and fair guidelines that will help instill consumer confidence in organic dairy.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said: "Clear and enforceable standards are essential to the health and success of the market for organic agriculture. The final rule published today will give consumers confidence that organic milk or cheese comes from cows raised on pasture, and organic family farmers the assurance that there is one, consistent pasture standard that applies to dairy products."
In particular, the new rules require cattle to have access to pasture all year round, and to be out on pasture for at least 120 days. They should also receive at least 30 percent of their feed from pasture.
The department said that the majority of organic dairy farmers already adhere to these standards, but those that have already qualified for organic certification will have one year after the final rule is published on July 17, 2010 to implement the measures. Any operations that apply for certification after this date will be expected to be in compliance.
In response to the rule’s publication, Consumers Union said it has long advocated strong standards for the organic label.
The organization’s director of technical policy Urvashi Rangan said: “This new standard goes a long way to bridging the gap between consumer expectation and the realities of how much time organic animals are required to spend in the pasture. And we commend the USDA for pushing the bar higher by laying out specific guidelines so that organic farmers have to raise their livestock in a way that allows them to graze outdoors, exhibiting more natural behavior.”
The USDA said the process to redesign the NOP regulations regarding pasture use in raising organic ruminants started in 2005, and it has received more than 26,000 comments since publishing the proposed rule in October 2008.
Small-scale farm campaigning organization The Cornucopia Institute has also welcomed the new standards, for which it has been pushing for several years.
Senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute Mark Kastel said: “We are delighted by the new rules. The organic community has been calling for strong regulations and its enforcement for much of the past decade…Based on Cornucopia's research 90 percent of all name brand dairy products are produced with high-integrity – the handful of factory farms are bad aberrations and will now be dealt with."
According to government figures, less than 1 percent of American farms are organic and the gap between production and demand is growing. Although certified organic acreage has doubled in the US since 1997, organic food sales have quintupled over the same period, from $3.6bn to $21.1bn in 2008.
A USDA report released in June last year said that nearly half of US organic handlers find ingredients in short supply and, in 2004, 13 percent failed to meet market demand for at least one of their products. Fruit and vegetables represent the biggest sub-sector of the organic market, at 37 percent of sales, while dairy is second, at 16 percent.
Additional information on the USDA’s final rule is available online here.