Under fire from Congress and the organics industry, USDA is moving to finalize a 2015 proposal allowing dairy producers to transition animals into organic production once.
The department’s Agricultural Marketing Service will reopen the comment period on the "Origin of Livestock" proposal for 60 days on Tuesday.
The Organic Trade Association welcomed the move. “The organic dairy sector is struggling, and inconsistent interpretation of the [current] standards is putting farmers at a devastating economic disadvantage,” OTA said.
The proposal says, “After completion of this one-time transition, any new dairy animals that a producer adds to a dairy farm would need to be managed organically from the last third of gestation or sourced from dairy animals that already completed their transition into organic production.”
A 2013 USDA Inspector General report said because of a “lack of clarity in the current organic regulations, different [organic] certifiers interpret the requirements for transitioning cattle differently.”
The rule “allows organic milk operations to transition conventional dairy animals and, thus, save on organic feed costs during the time period associated with raising a dairy cow from birth until 12 months prior to the production of organic milk or milk products,” the IG report said.
“This practice allows an increase of the dairy herd (and the organic milk market share) by purchasing conventional cattle and transitioning them into an organic herd. This may lead to dairy producers shopping for certifying agents who allow this process."
The differing enforcement standards have allowed some large farmers to produce organic milk more cheaply than their smaller competitors, who raise organic cows from birth.
Both the House and Senate ag spending bills require USDA to issue a final rule within 180 days of the final spending bill being signed into law. Those spending bills are among the legislation to be addressed before government funding expires Nov. 21.
“This additional comment period will only reinforce the 1,500 comments already submitted during the 2015 comment period on the proposed rule,” OTA said. “There should be no doubt that the industry has reached consensus on this policy to level the process for organic dairy farmers.”
“Industry and Congress are in lockstep,” said OTA CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha. “They have been definitive that the policy needs to be clarified and it needs to happen expeditiously. The comment period doesn’t change that.”
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