February 17, 2010


US refines standards for organic milk and meat


The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is sharpening the standards for organic milk and meat.

New rules announced last week say organic milk and meat must come from livestock grazing on pasture for at least four months of the year, and that 30% of their feed must come from grazing. The old rules said only that animals must have access to pasture.

According to reports, it took years to craft the new regulations, which offer clarity for ranchers, food companies and consumers, who have forked over billions of dollars for organic food without a crystalline standard for livestock.

Once a niche market, the organic industry has grown exponentially in the last 20 years as consumers following healthy eating trends sought out organic products, which are grown without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or biotechnology. It had grown to a US$24 billion market in 2008, according to the most recent figures from the Organic Trade Association, and its share of food sales was 3.5% and growing.

The industry's rapid expansion, and the ensuing competition between small- and large-scale farmers and ranchers, has put a premium on defining what it means to be organic. To that end, USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the pasture rules are the first step in sharpening that definition.

The new rules take effect in June, and farmers and ranchers will have one year to comply.

"Consumers increasingly are placing high value on organic principles that safeguard animal welfare and avoid confinement," said Christine Bushway, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.