There has been a lot of attention on the return of the Origin of Livestock rule for organic. I wanted to get to the meat of the matter and find out what it meant for my organic dairy friends and why it was important for all organic consumers.
Turns out that, when the organic regulations were written for dairy production, the intention was that milk represented as organic must come from livestock that has been under continuous organic management for at least one year.
A one-year transition period was allowed only when converting a conventional herd to organic.
Once a herd has been converted to organic production, all dairy animals had to be under organic management from the last third of gestation.
Some dairy farmers saw that as a loophole.
The original regulations lacked specificity in transitioning animals in and out of organic production—and some certifiers allowed it!
A few dairies were routinely bringing non-organic animals into an organic operation, transitioning them for one year, rather than breeding them from their animals already under organic management.
Additionally, some farmers have been allowed to remove organic dairy animals from a herd, raise them using conventional feed and other prohibited management practices, and then re-transition them back to organic.
This practice of continuously transitioning and/or cycling dairy animals in and out of organic production is in violation of the spirit of the organic standards.
I am lucky enough to be friends with Albert Straus, the founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery. They have 12 family dairies that supply their creamery, one is his, and the others are all in Marin and Sonoma Counties in Northern California.
He told me that “three new next-generation farmers joined Straus Family Creamery’s supplier group this year. They are all practicing organic dairy farming with organic animals that meet the USDA requirement for Origin of Livestock. All of these new farms purchased or raised organic dairy livestock. The USDA Origin of Livestock Rule allows a one-year transition for new herds to be treated organically or animals from the last third gestation. There is no in and out; they don’t buy conventional heifers and transition them to organic.”
I asked him to explain what “last third gestation” means.
He explained, “Last third of gestation means that when the cows are pregnant, they have been raised organically at least the last three months before calving.
The cow is pregnant for nine months, and during those last three months, the mother must be raised organically. Once you implement the one-year transition, all animals have to be raised organically from birth.”
This regulatory uncertainty has created inconsistent enforcement and economic hardship for farmers.
Albert explained that “the controversy has arisen from the allowance in the regulations that you can have a one-year transition to start a new herd. Some people have been taking advantage of that allowance of continually transitioning animals as a new herd, and some certifiers have allowed it. The organic regulations intended to be a one-time exception to get the entire herd on board. There have been other cases where farmers are constantly transitioning some animals in and out of organic production.”
I asked Albert how this has created hardship for dairy farmers.
He relayed to me that, “having healthy, vital calves as replacements for your organic herd is essential for sustaining an organic dairy farm. Maintaining the calves’ vitality at birth is pivotal to building a strong, healthy life for the animal.
Raising calves organically is twice as expensive as raising them conventionally. An organic dairy farm can have a 20-to-30% calve mortality rate. Reducing this rate requires excellent animal husbandry, which is more costly and labor-intensive. An organic dairy farm is not allowed to use antibiotics and other conventional medications. The first four months are crucial in the calves’ health and well-being.
The USDA did try to address the issue in the past.
Back in 2015, the USDA issued a proposed rule to clarify the regulations around Origin of Livestock. The regulation still allowed for a one-time transition of a conventional herd to organic.
Public comments reflected widespread consensus and support for the proposed rule. However, a final rule was never published, and in 2017, it was removed from USDA’s Unified Regulatory Agenda without explanation.
The Organic Trade Association has led the way in clarifying the organic herd.
Last February, the Organic Trade Association’s Dairy Sector Council sent a letter to USDA urging the agency to publish a final rule.
The signatories on the letter represented over 90% of the current U.S. organic dairy market. From small family farms to some of the largest organic dairies and companies in the world, the organic dairy industry united to demand strong and consistent standards.
OTA lobbied Congress, and when the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee approved the Agriculture Appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2020, it included a requirement that the USDA issue a final rule on the Origin of Organic Livestock rule.
The House of Representatives passed a bill in June with the same requirement, demonstrating bipartisan congressional support for an action widely favored among organic stakeholders.
Finally, On October 1st, the USDA reopened the comment period for the proposed rule on Origin of Livestock that was originally published on April 28, 2015.
Albert told me that he “will definitely participate and make comments supporting the rule.
It’s important for the integrity of certified organic and to create a level playing field.
It’s very important for consumers—everyone—to be involved and make a comment. It’s essential that certified organic is understood and held to a standard that builds confidence in the label and is realized as a fair farming and animal welfare practice.
Everyone should understand what organic is and how it helps build the farming community and a food system for the future.”
Even if you’re not involved in organic dairy production, why is it important to make a comment?
Last year, growth in the U.S. dairy sector slowed for the second year in a row. Still the second-largest organic category, sales were $6.5 billion in 2018, up 0.8 percent from 2017.
It is critical that USDA hears a unified voice from the organic community and that we support rulemaking that clarifies and narrows the allowance for transitioning dairy animals to organic milk production.
How can you participate?
The new comment period is now open until December 2, 2019, and it gives everyone an opportunity to comment.
Comments previously submitted don’t need to be resubmitted, as they are already incorporated into the public record and will be fully considered in any future final rule.
OTA has developed an Origin of Livestock – Take Action Toolkit that includes critical background resources, key talking points, and links to their new digital advocacy platform for quick-and-easy comment submission. You can also make your comments directly here.
Let’s keep organic strong and support the new Origin of Livestock rule!