The USDA's Long-Awaited Organic Pasture Access Rule: Only Two Months to Go!

Beginning in June, cattle across America will get a breath of fresh air.

Last month the United States Department of Agriculture quietly issued a press release announcing that it had completed the five-year process of retooling the rules governing organic livestock practices.

The USDA's organic rules were first codified in 1990 -- before the agriculture industry could anticipate that organics would be one of the only niches in the food industry that would see consistent sales growth for years on end. The rules never really had much in the way of teeth; enforcement was weak, and the rules themselves were vague.

The most contentious rule, instituted in 2002, stated that organic livestock should have "access to pasture."

The issue of access to pasture is one that has also plagued the free-range egg industry and has provided large organic dairies with a loophole that served to effectively undermine the spirit of the rule. The "pasture" could be as little as a strip of mud outside the barn. This allowed large factory farms to earn USDA organic labeling as long as they followed rules on feeding organic grain to their animals.

All the same, most proponents of organic agriculture didn't ever consider "access" to be sufficient.

That's where February's announcement comes in.

Now, instead of simply providing cattle with a door to the outside, the USDA requires that animals graze on pasture for at least 120 days a year. That means real, honest-to-goodness grass, not just organic corn. The rules are relaxed somewhat for animals being readied for slaughter, which can still be "grain finished" (standard even in the grass-fed beef industry).

Ultimately, the rule change vindicates small-scale organic farmers who have been raising their livestock on pasture for years. But it might prove nettlesome for large organic conglomerates such as Horizon Dairy, which has been the target of USDA investigators and organic activists for years for its huge feedlot-style operations in Idaho and Maryland. According to the Cornucopia Institute, an organic-advocacy organization, 30 percent to 40 percent of organic dairy products come from such industrial-scale operations.

Notably, however, Horizon has come out in favor of stricter USDA standards for pasturing requirements.

There are no organic livestock producers in the St. Louis region, but there are plenty of farms who market their meat and dairy as "naturally raised," without the use of artificial growth hormones or antibiotics to prevent illness. It is possible that the new regulations will inspire more grass-fed meat and dairy producers to seek USDA Organic certification.

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