ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Eulogy for an "Organic" Mega-Dairy

The suspension of a mega-organic dairy in California continues to generate attention, with the most recent from a neighbor who had the foresight to take video of the operation and post it on her blog, Rebuild from Depression. She also has a very insightful post about the operation that I recommend others to read.

What this work shows is that producers and consumers are very interested in transparency and, with the use of the Internet, will out those producers who are skirting the regulations. This is what transparency is all about and what underpins organic and sustainable foods.

Without further adieu, on to the video eulogy. (Note on video: It views better if you download the whole thing before playing unless you have a fast connection). 

Certification Yanked at Big Organic Dairy

By Samuel Fromartz

In a sign that pressure is mounting on big confinement organic dairy farms, Quality Assurance International, a major organic certification agency, has yanked certification for the Case Vander Eyk organic dairy in California, an operation with an estimated 3,500 cows.

This dairy in the central valley of California has been the subject of complaints by the advocacy group, Cornucopia Institute. But QAI's decision marks the first time a certifier has suspended a big confinement dairy, though these farms have been criticized for years.

Photo: Cornucopia Institute

"The process took quite a long time," one source with direct knowledge of the situation said, because of the review requirements under the USDA's National Organic Program.

Once certification is suspended, as it was in this case in mid-May, the operation can no longer sell its products as organic. It can, however, appeal the certifier's decision to the NOP, which then reviews the details of the case.

One source said the farm didn't comply with organic regulations in a number of areas, including pasture.

The Vander Eyk dairy was among several large-scale farms that became lightening rods in the organic  industry over the past several years as the organic dairy market expanded at 20-30 percent a year.

Several large scale farms came on line and others were looking to transition to the market. But many organic dairy farmers, consumer groups and advocates strongly objected to these confinement dairy farms that offered little or no pasture to their milking cows.

Complaints were filed with the USDA's National Organic Program and efforts redoubled to tighten up the regulatory language requiring pasture so these large-scale confinement farms would be shut down.

The Vander Eyk dairy, which had both conventional and organic operations, had been selling milk to Horizon Organic, but it was yanked as a supplier when its contract ran out in 2006, because it no longer met the company's standards. Horizon, the largest organic milk company, had come under a lot of pressure for a large-scale dairy farm it owns in Idaho. But it has since invested millions in the farm to add pasture in a process that is now nearly complete.

Horizon Organic has backed a tighter organic pasture standard, calling for cows to graze at least 120 days on pasture with at least 30 percent of the cow's nutritional needs coming from fresh grass. Organic dairy farmers nationwide are pushing for this strict language and it is currently under review by the NOP.

The Vander Eyk farm was among several, such as Aurora Organic in Colorado, which did not offer meaningful pasture access to its cows. But the language was so vague in the current regulations that it became a loophole that allowed organic confinement farms to exist, much to the dismay of many organic proponents.

"Your headline should read 'Case Closed,'" said Mark Kastel of Cornucopia Institute.

But the final chapter of these big organic dairy farms has yet to be written.

Should Organic Livestock Have Access to Antibiotics?

By Samuel Fromartz

Hue Karreman, a prominent veterinarian who works with organic dairy farmers in Pennsylvania, has published a highly provocative essay on arguing that organic livestock farmers should consider the use of antibiotics in rare instances – a practice currently banned by organic regulations.

"In essence, when it comes to an individual animal needing truly prompt, effective treatment for a serious infection on an organic farm, the US organic rule may compromise animal welfare," he writes.

His argument opens up a Pandora's box in organics, since the label for so long has been associated with "antibiotic and hormone-free" production methods. Surveys show those labels are a major reason organic milk is so popular with consumers. It is growing at about 20 percent a year.

While I don't expect the prohibition on antibiotics to change soon, Karreman makes an interesting argument – and one not particularly new. (He made the same point when I was working on my book and I include it in chapter 6.)

The main issue with antibiotics is their overuse, which allows bugs to build up resistance. This renders the drugs impotent in humans as well. But Karreman finds the one-time or rare use of the medicine distinctly different from the regular "sub-therapeutic" use of the drugs in livestock production, which is the main cause of rampant overuse.

One reason these therapies are so popular in conventional farming is that the animals suffer from diseases associated with confinement, or a poor diet. The low-forage diet in feedlot beef production, for example, increases the fat content in the muscle, but it also raises the chance of acidosis - or stomach acidity - which in turn is associated with disease. One way to reduce those diseases is to administer low levels of antibiotics, a common practice.

Ideally, organic animals avoid those pitfalls by grazing an adequate amount of time on fresh grass and avoiding the stress of a high-production regime. (Organic dairy cows, for example, produce less milk than conventional animals).

But what happens when an organic animal gets an infection? Currently, under organic production rules, the farmer is required to treat the animal with approved methods (that include herbal remedies, homeopathy, even acupuncture, all of which can be quite successful). But if the animal does not respond to approved therapies, the animal must be given antibiotics and then removed from the organic farm. They can never return.

Karreman believes this end-result puts farmers in a bind. The animal may suffer if the farmer waits to see whether it can heel without antibiotics, yet, if they administer the drug right away they must sell the animal. "Who is to say what medication will be used and when will it be started in the disease process?" He asks.

The issue this raises, of course, is whether organic milk will be able to maintain its distinct identity in the marketplace if antibiotics are allowed.

And like other parts of the organic regulations, would opening the door to rare use of antibiotics invite more extreme practices, such as the sub-therapeutic use that is so objectionable? If you consider the ways the rules have been bent on issues like grazing, that is not unlikely.

Karreman has been one of the few, if not the only one within the organic industry, to stick his head on this issue and make this proposal. At the very least, he faces an uphill battle.

Organic Pasture Rule Coming Soon

By Samuel Fromartz

It has taken several years and many attempts to beef up a regulation requiring organic livestock to graze on pasture. Now it appears, there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

If this rule passes, as many farmers, retailers and advocates hope, cows will be required to graze on fresh grass for a minimum amount of time each year.

A coalition of dairy groups is pushing for a floor of 120 days on pasture, with 30 percent of the cows' nutritional needs coming from fresh grass. Previously, the regulations only required "access to pasture," which meant a cow might rarely get a blade of fresh grass and live out its productive life on huge feedlots. A clear pasture regulation would end that practice, though it is unknown what the final rule will actually say.

In an interview, Barbara Robinson, Deputy Administrator for the USDA's National Organic Program, told me that a pasture rule should be released for comment this summer, though she was doubtful that it would take effect by the end of this year.

ROBINSON: I'm hopeful that we'll see something this summer. It is drafted. It's in clearance, we've gone back and forth with our attorneys who are the first level of review and it's with them again for a second review and then it has to make its way through the department and to OMB (Office of Management and Budget).

FROMARTZ: And that can happen by the summer?

ROBINSON: Again, I don't know but I'm hoping because it's my no. 1 priority and has been. You don't often have a deputy administrator who works on a pasture rule or on any rulemaking but I have been. It's kind of been my baby.

Once the proposed rule is published, the public will get an opportunity to comment. Those comments will then be incorporated into the final rule, which will be published. At that point, the rule would probably take effect within 30 days with a transition period for farms to come into compliance.

But she added: "I don't think it would be in the effect by the end of the year."

The rule could also hit roadblocks once it's sent over to the Office of Management and Budget in the next couple of months. Robinson said there has been a great degree of interest in this rule, as there is with the entire organic program. "Everybody and their brother gets to look at it and they ask, why you changed this paragraph. It takes forever," she said.

Robinson said the rule could also run into problems if "we really got it wrong. Then we might have to republish the proposed rule but I don't think that would be the case. I think we got it right," she said.