Behind the Organic Label

For those who fight for access to organic goods, it is a relief that at last the USDA Organic label on our milk will mean that the cows had more than just ‘access’ to pastures. The requirement that organic livestock be provided access to pasture had often been abused by large dairies as a poorly written loophole. But the passage has been updated to specify the terms of access. As The New York Times reported February 12,

“The new regulations, which go into effect in June, are much more specific. They say that animals must graze on pasture for the full length of the local grazing season. The season will be determined by local conditions and agriculture authorities, like organic certifiers or county conservation officials, not by the dairy alone. While the grazing season must last at least 120 days, in many areas it will be much longer. The rules also say that animals must get at least 30 percent of their food from pasture during the grazing season.”

All in all, it is a victory for organic. Large dairies will now have to do what small dairies were often already doing and consumers can have a bit more confidence in the organic label. But one thing left unmentioned by both the Times and Marion Nestle’s victorious entry for The Atlantic  is the role these local “agriculture authorities” will actually play. Of course the nature of these bodies will vary depending on location but just to offer an example of what agriculture authorities may entail and the incredible extent of poorly written legal documents, I would like to draw your attention to Ohio. The voters of Ohio recently approved a constitutional amendment creating the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board. This board was presented as a humanely-minded regulatory body that would improve conditions for farm animals. And who wouldn’t vote for that, even if it is in the rather extreme form of a constitutional amendment? Fortunately, the more sinister details of the issue have begun to enter the public debate. To start, the body is not an elected one. It is comprised of the state department head of agriculture as well as ten individuals appointed by the governor meant to represent family farms (left undefined), consumers, veterinarians, and “someone who is knowledgeable about food safety.” These individuals are then given the authority to set the standards of care. The constitutional article tries to include details that would deflect criticism aimed at the reach of the Board with notes like, “The state department that regulates agriculture shall have the authority to administer and enforce the standards established by the Board.” I’m not sure how comforting that should be when the head of that same department sits on the Board. Fortunately, there is a move to put this amendment back on the ballot because, even if the Board does not become a reflection of big agriculture business, there is no accountability or opportunity for citizen participation.

This is not to say the new USDA requirements are not a victory. They are/ It is just to point out that phrases like “the season will be determined by local conditions and agriculture authorities, like organic certifiers or county conservation officials, not by the dairy alone” should be considered carefully. County conservation officials sounds good. As do livestock care standards. But the mechanisms are intentionally obscure to deter individual resistance. Inform yourself about your local management bodies.

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