Posted on April 28, 2015

Will organic livestock rule change clear industry confusion?

Proposed rule would hit less than 5% of organic dairy operations buying transitioned heifers

To help clear confusion among organic dairy operations and the agencies that certify them, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) on Monday issued a proposed rule to change requirements for the transition of conventional dairy heifers to organic production.

The NOP said "organic operations and certifying agents have interpreted the current USDA organic regulations differently, leading to confusion about when the transition of a herd into organic production should be considered complete."

The NOP’s Origin of Livestock proposed rule would require 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. However, the proposed rule also provides a one-time allowance for an organic producer to convert conventional dairy animals to organic milk production after a one-year transitional period.

The proposed rule, recommended by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a 15-member board of organic industry stakeholders advising the NOP on organic food and agriculture policies, responds to a report from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) urging the NOP to take action to end the inconsistent interpretation of current rules."

In July 2013, the OIG published an audit report on organic milk operations stating that certifying agents were interpreting the origin of livestock requirements differently. The report showed that three of the six certifiers it interviewed allowed producers to continuously transition additional herds to organic milk production, while the other three certifiers did not permit this practice.

OIG had recommended that a proposed rule be issued to clarify the standard and ensure that all certifiers consistently apply and enforce the origin of livestock requirements.

The NOP said the proposed rule does just that by establishing "a level playing field" for organic dairy producers, since organically raised dairy animals are typically more expensive than those transitioned to organic operations through a one-year transition process.

The proposed rule means organic dairies that currently sell their excess organic replacement heifers may see an increase in demand and price for their heifers, while dairies that already raise their own organic replacement heifers would not be affected.

The proposed rule would mostly impact the less than 5 percent of organic dairy operations that currently purchase transitioned heifers, the NOP said, as well as a limited number of heifer development operations that transition herds of conventional dairy animals to organic production through a one-year transition process.

The proposed rule was published Tuesday in the Federal Register for public comment through July 27 at www.regulations.gov.

Comments can also be submitted by mail to Scott Updike, Agricultural Marketing Specialist, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-NOP, Room 2646-So., Ag Stop 0268, 1400 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC 20250-0268.

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