Now, with the new pasture rule released last week, the bright line is there. The regulation states that cows must be out on pasture throughout the grazing season, for at least 120 days. They must also get a minimum of 30 percent of their nutrition from fresh grass (as measured by dry weight, since grass contains far more water than grain). This standard was arrived at by consensus by organic dairy farmers around the nation nearly five years ago. It will take full effect a year from now.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory panel that recommends all regulatory changes to the Secretary of Agriculture, had at first recommended that the 120 day/30 percent minimum be for "guidance" only. But in an especially detailed and well-reasoned document explaining the regulation (PDF), the USDA said, "public comments showed strong backing for a regulatory change"—not simply guidance.
The agency enacted the bright line standard to avoid confusion among certifiers who had interpreted the "access to pasture" prescription quite differently. (Some required grazing while others clearly did not.) Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, the USDA made the change "to satisfy consumer expectations that ruminant livestock animals graze on pastures during the grazing season."
Evidence of those consumer expectations appeared after the first proposed rule, released in April 2006, when more than 80,500 commented. Of those, just 28 were opposed to any changes in the pasture requirement and "there was a consistent theme of opposition to confining animals and feedlot feeding," the agency noted.
Consumers, farmers, retailers, and public advocates spoke. And, in this case, the USDA listened—it just took awhile.
That voice is especially important because the National Organic Program was designed by Congress as a "marketing program." (It is officially agnostic on whether organic foods or organic production practices are better or healthier.) If the market, defined by the 30 percent or so of Americans who occasionally buy organic products, think organic practices are failing to live up to their expectations, the agriculture secretary has reason to "satisfy consumer expectations" and change the program. That was clearly the case in the pasture dispute, where consumers felt large-scale feedlot organic farms were manipulating organic practices with a loophole.
As another example, the agency pointed out that antibiotics are clearly prohibited from organic production. Consumers point to the absence of antibiotics as well as synthetic growth hormones in production as reasons to buy organic dairy products, livestock, meat and poultry. Yet the agency felt compelled "to further clarify the prohibition on the use of antibiotics."
The reason? "In administering this program we have found antibiotics in certified organic feed," the agency said. The document continues:
Whether used for therapeutic or subtherapeutic reasons or to increase feed efficiency or rate of gain, all antibiotics are prohibited ... It is the producer's responsibility, to obtain assurances from feed suppliers that the feed products supplied are free of antibiotics.
But the intent of meeting consumer expectations might not apply only to pasture or livestock practices. If consumers have an expectation that organic food should be free of genetically modified crops, then the agency should ensure against GM contamination. (Genetically modified crops are banned from organic agriculture.) In fact, this issue may arise sooner rather than later if the USDA approves genetically modified alfalfa. Organic farmers plant alfalfa in their fields, so nearby crops could be subject to pollen contamination. That prospect has led to yet another consumer campaign for protections, and more lawsuits are likely on the horizon if the GM crops are approved.