By STEVE KARNOWSKI
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MINNEAPOLIS -- A long struggle over what kind of milk counts as organic is coming to a head.
The Department of Agriculture has issued draft rules for organic milk that would require that the cows be on pasture at least half the year and get plenty of fresh grass. The proposals are meant to close a loophole that has allowed some huge feedlots to sell their milk as organic, even though their cows rarely grazed on fresh grass.
Advocates for family dairy farms and organic consumers say that's not what shoppers think they are buying when they pay a premium for organic milk.
"Pretty much the entire organic community welcomes the long-overdue closing of loopholes for pasture and feed in the organic dairy regulations," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.
"The controversy has dragged on so long," agreed George Siemon, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and chief executive officer of Organic Valley, the nation's largest farmer-owned organic dairy cooperative.
The public comment period on the draft rules runs through Dec. 23.
The issue started to boil over a few years ago when it emerged that a handful of large dairy farms with thousands of cows, mostly in arid western states, were feeding their cows organic grain but keeping them largely confined to feedlots while selling the milk as organic.
The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute helped lead the charge, mainly against two companies: Aurora Organic Dairy, which produces private-label organic milk for national and local retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Co. and Safeway Inc.; and Horizon Organic, the largest national organic dairy brand and a unit of Fort Worth, Texas-based-Dean Foods Co., the country's largest dairy processor and distributor.
The Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association called for boycotts and spread the word to its hundreds of thousands of supporters via the Internet. Consumers filed class-action lawsuits.
Organic dairy products are a $2.7 billion industry, about 4 percent of all dairy products sold in 2006, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic dairy is growing faster than the organic sector as a whole, and is an important entry point for consumers who are new to organics, said Holly Givens, a spokeswoman for the association.
In the notice published in the Federal Register late last month, the Agriculture Department said consumers and others had made clear their feelings that organic cows should get their nutrition from grazing. In an earlier public comment round, only 28 of more than 80,500 comments were against tightening the rules. The Agriculture Department also pointed to surveys conducted by Whole Foods Market Inc., Consumers Union and the Natural Marketing Institute that found strong backing for requiring grazing for organic cows.
Organic advocates are happy that the draft rules would require that organic cows be on pasture for at least 120 days out of the year, and that the animals get at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from grazing during the growing season.
Aurora Organic Dairy is reviewing the draft rules and will submit comments to the Agriculture Department by the Dec. 23 deadline, spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele said. The Boulder, Colo.-based company said previously that it considered the 120-day standard unscientific. Tuitele said that's less of a concern to Aurora now, but said the proposals don't adequately provide for inclement weather. She also said the final rules will need to take geographic differences into consideration.
Horizon Organic has long supported the 120-day and 30 percent requirements and considers the proposed rules a step in the right direction, said Sara Loveday, a spokeswoman for Broomfield, Colo.-based Horizon.