Organic or Conventional - It Depends on the Definition of “Herd”

April 28, 2015 - The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has issued proposed rules aimed at limiting the transition of non-organically-raised dairy animals into organic production, moving to resolve a debate that has long roiled the organic dairy industry.

The proposed rules would narrow an exception originally designed to make it easier for conventional dairy farmers to convert their operations to organic. In general, dairy animals must be raised on organic feed and under organic management practices from the third trimester of gestation before their eventual milk production can be certified as organic. But National Organic Program (NOP) regulations include an exception for conventional dairy farmers wishing to transition to organic production.

For those farmers, the NOP allows an existing dairy herd to be reclassified as organic after no less than 12 months of organic management. The exception was intended as a one-time event to help individual farmers avoid the substantial hurdle of herd replacement. Milk from transitioned cows may be sold as organic, but the cows themselves cannot later be sold for slaughter as organic beef.  

However, some organic dairy producers and certifying agencies differed in their interpretation of the term “herd”, and used the exception to allow the ongoing transition of conventionally-raised animals into organic operations. The move cut costs for a small number of producers, but created ongoing controversy that the current proposal aims to resolve.

The new proposal would tweak the rules by regulating the producer instead of the herd, thereby explicitly limiting conventional-to-organic transition to a one-time event, rather than an ongoing business practice. Critics have noted that producers intent on repeated use of the exception could possibly employ a legal strategy of re-incorporation. But other dairy insiders praised the proposed rule as an ackowledgement of the problem and a well-structured attempt to clarify the rule.

"These proposed changes are a welcome move by the USDA to provide clarity on the transition rule," said Organic Farming Research Foundation Executive Director Brise Tencer. "Uncertainty on this issue over the years has left producers and certifiers to build their own interpretations, and an update on these rules is overdue. We applaud the strengthening and improvement of organic standards."

Comment on the proposed rule will be accepted from April 28 through July 27, 2015. Go to the National Organic Program website to register a comment.

Maria Gaura - OFRF