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Published April 15, 2010, 04:57 PM

USDA seeks comments on controversy surrounding confining organic livestock

CORNUCOPIA, Wis — The new USDA organic pasture rule strengthening the requirement for grazing and pasturing livestock may not apply to beef cattle and other ruminants in meat production. In fact, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is seeking comments from farmers and consumers on a proposal to allow some level of confinement in feedlots for, as an example, organic beef cattle during the last four months of their lives during the “finishing” period prior to slaughter (when industry standards would feed them mostly grain/corn).

CORNUCOPIA, Wis — The new USDA organic pasture rule strengthening the requirement for grazing and pasturing livestock may not apply to beef cattle and other ruminants in meat production. In fact, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is seeking comments from farmers and consumers on a proposal to allow some level of confinement in feedlots for, as an example, organic beef cattle during the last four months of their lives during the “finishing” period prior to slaughter (when industry standards would feed them mostly grain/corn).

The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, surveyed a broad spectrum of organic meat producers to better understand their production practices. The results reveal a wide range of practices.

Cornucopia found that the vast majority of organic beef producers graze their beef cattle on pasture until slaughter, never confining them to a feedlot. Approximately 60% of organic beef producers never feed any grain to their cattle (100% grass-fed). And another 20% maintain their cattle on pasture but provide small amounts of grain. The new rule’s proposed exemption for ruminant slaughter stock from obtaining feed from pasture is therefore not needed by the vast majority of farmers and ranchers producing organic beef.

The balance of organic producers say they need to depend on feedlots for finishing their cattle on grain in order to conform to market demand for meet that grades-out at choice under the USDA inspection system.

“In order to accommodate all production models we are asking the USDA to implement a new labeling approach for organic meat that better reflects the realities in organic agriculture,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s Senior Farm Policy Analyst.

The three labels proposed for organic meat from ruminants would be “Organic — Grain Finished,” “Organic — Pasture/Grain Finished,” and “Organic — 100% Grass Fed.”

Consumers are increasingly interested in grass-fed meats. Some would likely be surprised to find that “organic” and “grass-fed” are not synonymous. The environmental advantages of grass-based livestock agriculture, its nutritional superiority as well as animal welfare benefits are reported not only in scientific articles, but are also covered extensively in the popular media, ranging from Mother Earth News to Time Magazine, Forbes and the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Producers of organic grain-fed beef strongly believe that consumer preference and the marketplace dictate their production practices. American consumers have grown accustomed to the texture and flavor of meat that’s gained by corn-feeding cattle in a feedlot. The USDA’s current grading system for meat also rewards high levels of intramuscular fat in beef — which is more easily achieved through finishing cattle on grain instead of grass.

As an alternative, some organic farmers and ranchers also add small amounts of grain to their animal’s diet while they remain on pasture. This approach helps with weight gain and the flavor familiar to many consumers and leads some organic supporters to feel that it more accurately reflects the environmental and animal husbandry values the organic label is based on.

“We think the three-tier labeling system will help farmers and ranchers better develop their markets and consumers will gain transparency and choice in their consumption of organic meat,” Kastel explained.

The NOP is accepting public comments on its proposed feedlot exemption from pasture for organic beef ruminants until April 19. Mailed comments must be postmarked by that date and email comments are accepted until midnight on the 19th at www.regulations.gov (search for AMS-TM-06-0198 on the site).

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