Proposed Rule Would Put Organic Cows Out to Pasture

Current regs don’t require grass feeding or time outdoors.

December 22, 2008

Under current rules, organic milk doesn't have to come from grass-fed cows.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The USDA is proposing a rule that could close a loophole that allows factory farms to certify their milk and meat as organic, even though the animals rarely get the chance to go outside to feast on grass. “It’s a good thing,” says Jeff Moyer, farm director of the Rodale Institute and 2009 chair-elect of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board. “It’s a stronger rule that’s less open to interpretation.”


THE DETAILS: The proposed amendment would change certain provisions of the National Organic Program: It calls for livestock to spend 8 hours a day, 120 days of the year, grazing in grass pastures, and requires that the cows get 30% of their caloric intake from grass. The new rules don’t require year-round pasture time because of concerns about extreme weather, sickness, injury, and calving time. Current regulations on the matter are ambiguous and leave much open to interpretation and misinterpretation. “Too many people are not giving their cattle access to pasture,” Moyer says. In other cases, he notes, farmers give their animals access to the outdoors, but don’t provide grass pastures to feed on.

The proposed changes have organic farmers worrying that the rules are too specific. Some say bad weather, shorter growing seasons in colder climates, and the new, very specific grass intake requirement could make the regulations hard to comply with. The comment period ends this week; if changes are made, the rule will be sent back through the legal office and the Office of Management and Budget, possibly requiring another comment period before the rule’s put into effect.

WHAT IT MEANS: There are many reasons to reach for organic products instead of chemically grown versions, including a higher content of amino acids and other nutrients. “The benefits are huge,” Moyer says. “As a consumer, you’re eating a product that doesn’t have chemicals and synthetic materials applied to it or the ground. There are no injected grown hormones. It’s also better for the environment.” He adds, “Chemicals won’t wind up in our drinking water, in the Mississippi River, and running into the Gulf of Mexico, killing living organisms for hundreds of miles.”

Here’s how you can have your say in the proposed amendments, and make sure you certified organic farmers are letting their animals graze on green pastures.

• Sound off! You have one more day to get your thoughts on the proposed change to officials by Dec. 23, 2008. Just remember to address specific issues or raise detailed questions regarding the proposal rule. Send your comment online, and remember to identify the proposed rule with docket number AMS-TM-06-0198; TM-05-14.

• Play detective. Get as much of your organic food locally as you can. Often, you can pick up meat, vegetables, and dairy products on location, so you can ask farmers questions and see if the animals are left out to eat grass. Find sustainably produced milk, beef, and other food in your area through Local Harvest. If you buy organic milk or beef that’s not local, contact the manufacturer and ask how much time the cattle spend outdoors and how much grass they eat.