Heifer practices spark complaint
Cornucopia Institute claims practice skirts organic regulations
By STEVE BROWN
To be certified organic, dairies must manage its heifers organically from before birth, an organic watchdog group says.
Practices that deviate from that formula are the subject of a complaint the Cornucopia Institute filed with the USDA's National Organic Program. In it, the group alleges that a Texas organic dairy is using conventionally raised heifers.
Mark Kastel, co-founder and senior farm policy analyst at the Wisconsin-based nonprofit, believes many large-scale organic dairies take a less-expensive and less-rigorous approach to the practice.
He said USDA regulations permit a "one-time-only" conversion of conventional cows to organic. Once a dairy has converted, all aspects of the operation must adhere to organic standards.
"Once a herd is converted, all future dairy production animals must originate from animals that were managed organically from at least the last third of gestation," the NOP Organic Production and Handling Requirements state.
Singling out Natural Prairie Dairy Farms in Channing, Texas, the Cornucopia complaint asks the USDA to halt the practice of bringing conventionally raised heifers -- young females that have not yet calved -- onto organic dairies.
"It's cheaper for them to buy yearling heifers from other dairies or from contractors," he said. "That first year (the heifers) are undoubtedly receiving conventional medication and other synthetic materials, like genetically engineered feed, which are banned by organic standards."
Soo Kim, with the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, said she could not comment on Cornucopia's claims.
"We're waiting for the formal complaint to be filed," she said.
Kastel said the Texas dairy, milking more than 7,000 cows in two barns, is thought to be the largest certified organic dairy in the U.S.
Repeated attempts to reach Natural Prairie Dairy Farms by telephone were unsuccessful as of press time.
"We interviewed investors that owned the Texas dairy and one big customer," he said. "We filed on this dairy due to specific interviews. We're not in the rumor business.
"The industrial dairies are saving the expense of raising the animal with organic standards," he said.
Kastel said the administration has indicated it will write new regulations, "but the present regulations are perfectly clear. With new regs, it could be two years until enforcement, so we filed the complaint. Quick adjudication is better than waiting for new regulations to be written."
Cornucopia Institute: www.cornucopia.org