Trade association defines what’s organic in dairy, meat

What makes milk or meat organic? After a drawn-out debate, the Agriculture Department has significantly narrowed the definition to livestock that spend a third of the year grazing on pasture.

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 percent of their feed must come from grazing. The old rules said only that animals must have “access to pasture.”

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 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 $24 billion market in 2008, according to the most recent figures from the Organic Trade Association.

The industry’s expansion, and the ensuing competition armers and ranchers, has put a premium on defining what it means to be organic. To that end, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the pasture rules are the first step in sharpening that definition.

Associated Press