The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) on Wednesday failed to meet a congressionally mandated deadline to issue a final rule on the origin of livestock, which governs how conventional dairy heifers are transitioned into organic herds.
Congress had passed a funding bill last fall that required the USDA to issue a final rule based on a four-year old proposed rule by June 17.
The bill, which was signed into law on Dec. 19, was spurred by the organic dairy industry’s uproar over existing regulations that allow some organic dairy operations to continuously bring conventional animals into organic dairy herds.
The situation has led to a rapid expansion of cow numbers, distorting the organic milk market and creating an economic disadvantage for organic farmers who play by the rules.
The NOP had released an Origin of Livestock proposed rule in 2015 in order to establish what it called “a level playing field.” The proposed rule would have required that milk or milk products labeled, sold, or represented as organic come from dairy animals that have been organically managed since the last third of gestation.
The proposed rule would also have provided a one-time allowance for an organic producer to convert conventional dairy animals to organic milk production after a one-year transitional period.
But in June 2018, the USDA announced that it was scuttling the proposed rule without providing a reason.
The agency’s neglect in meeting the 180-day final rule deadline required by federal law was met with a letter sent to members of Congress by a coalition of 70 organic industry stakeholders on Thursday asking them to pressure the USDA to make sure that the NOP complies with Congress’ mandate and finalizes the origin of organic livestock rule as soon as possible.
“The organic community is gravely disappointed at the lack of attention and priority NOP has put on this issue and demand swift rulemaking and implementation,” the letter stated.
The coalition included organic retailers Natural Grocers and PCC Community Markets, organic dairy companies Straus Family Creamery and Beretta Dairy, several organic certifiers and organic producer groups, as well as organic trade groups including the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the Organic Farmers Association (OFA), among others.
“We have already lost many family organic dairies over the past few years as a result of this loophole and many more are suffering economic hardship. The new rule won’t save organic family dairies, but it will sure help level the playing field and provide opportunity for a sustainable future,” said Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA). “It is past time for the NOP to finalize the rule and provide much-needed clarity requested by the organic community.”