Organic Milk Actually Becomes Organic

Lots of buzz at last week’s Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) conference surrounded a rather astonishing development in the organic world: the U.S. Department of Agriculture had finally done something, well, good.

After five years of debate, on February 17, the USDA had amended the standards for organic milk to reflect what most consumers thought “organic” meant in the first place. So now (or at least by June 2011, when the amended standards take effect for all suppliers) when people buy milk labeled “organic,” they’ll be getting what they paid for.

To understand how revolutionary the amendment is, you have to understand the standard that it replaces. Under the old rule, milk had to meet several requirements to legally carry the organic label. Cows had to be fed organic feed – nothing laden with conventional pesticides for them. They couldn’t be injected with antibiotics or growth hormones. And they had to have access to pasture.

This last requirement was the rub. What did “access to pasture” really mean? Did it mean the cows had to be on pasture all the time, or just sometimes? Did they have to graze the pasture or just mill around on it? And what was pasture, anyway? Any outdoor space, a grassy lawn, Astroturf, or what?

Well, no one could figure it out, so everyone pretty much interpreted the standard the way they wanted to. Some farmers grazed their cows on grassy fields year-round, in a real-life version of the happy cows consumers see chewing their cud in dairy ads. But some companies, like Horizon Organic Dairy and Aurora Organic Dairy (which produces much of the store-brand organic milk on supermarket shelves) got their organic milk not only from such farmers, but also from thousands of cows kept in crowded company-owned feedlots. Yes, these cows were fed organic grain, and kept antibiotic- and hormone-free, but the image of cows stacked in close confinement on dirt or mud lots didn’t exactly square with the consumer’s vision of the natural, peaceful life of the organic cow. Nonetheless, the USDA couldn’t really enforce a rule that was hopelessly vague in the first place.

The new, amended rule, as explained by University of Minnesota Organic Outreach Coordinator Jim Riddle at the MOSES conference, allows no fudging of pasture standards. To qualify as organic, cows must actually graze pasture during the grazing season, which has a hard-and-fast minimum of 120 days per year. Lest anyone wonder what grazing means, the rule clarifies that cows must get at least 30 percent of their food from the pasture – implying that it has to have edible plants on it. Dirt won’t suffice. And to ensure that there are real, nutritious grasses growing on it, producers must manage their pasture as they would a crop.

The new, stricter standard garnered nothing but praise at the MOSES conference. Keynote speaker and Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs Chuck Hassebrook called the people who worked to get the new standard adopted “inspirational.” According to Hassebrook, organic farmers must make protecting the authenticity of the movement their top priority, and supporting more meaningful organic standards is a prime example of how to do that. Even a representative of Horizon, Director of Milk Supply Chad Anderson, stated upon being questioned that “Horizon really supports the new standards; we feel very positive about them.” When asked what Horizon would do to comply with the new standard, since its corporate feedlots are one example of what ignited the controversy in the first place, he was quick to point out that most of the independent farmers Horizon works with – about 500 in all – already comply with it. “The rest of the operations,” he stated, “are already on the road to compliance.” Apparently Horizon has seen the writing on the wall for some time. Organic Valley, which also had representatives at the conference, stated that they had already been going above and beyond the old USDA rule, and 100 percent of their farms already meet the new standard.

So the USDA hit the ball out of the park with this one: good news for consumers, and something for the many small farmers at the MOSES conference to celebrate. Milk is about to do a lot more bodies good.

Angelique Chao is a freelance writer in Minneapolis who spends most of her time noodling about the ethical implications of what we choose to eat. She thought she’d left philosophizing behind for good when she finished her dissertation and joined the business world, but after several years of corporate life her natural disposition reasserted itself, and she’s now a full-time writer and researcher. When she’s not out touring farms and processing facilities, you’re likely to find her at one laptop-friendly spot or another -- a library, a coffee shop, or home. She blogs at